Benefits of wetlands are too numerous to talk about here

Benefits of wetlands are too numerous to talk about here

Starting on June 24, WKSU radio station will broadcast a new series called “Watershed.” The topic and timing are both significant as June 2019 is the 50-year anniversary of a fire on the Cuyahoga River that turned national attention to the condition of the Cleveland River.

That particular fire was only one of many that had occurred on the Cuyahoga. Other rivers that ran through urban, industrialized areas had caught fire in many cities across the nation as well.

The 2014 commentary from Jonathon Adler in the Washington Post states the significance of the 1969 fire, subsequent reporting, and follow-up changes in regulations and behaviors was that it wasn’t the “first time an industrial river in the United States caught on fire, but the last.”

I’ll admit I am very interested in the stories that will be shared in this week’s program, where we can learn about the challenges and successes of bringing the Cuyahoga back from the brink.

At the same time, I am probably more interested in making a comparison to the path of restoration that rivers I am more familiar with underwent. Thinking about the tributaries of the South Fork of the Sugar Creek, I am pretty comfortable saying while there are still impairments, indicators of water quality have definitely improved after years of conservation work.

The Clear Fork, Mohican and Walhonding rivers all have some localized issues but are rivers that draw people in as tourist landmarks and are points of pride to those of us who are fortunate to live nearby and enjoy their bounty and beauty. But what about the Killbuck Creek?

Ironically, purchase of the ground for the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area began 50 years ago too. Much of the work that began destabilizing the river and changing the hydrology of the watershed began much earlier in the late 19th into the 20th century as more land was cleared and the river was dredged and straightened.

By the middle part of the 20th century, people recognized the human impacts on natural resources and landscapes. The blossoming ethic toward conservation and preservation was what launched local, state and federal initiatives to clean up our act.

However, much of what made the Killbuck Valley a unique and important landscape feature was lost by then and has not made a comeback. The geology and plant communities here that created a large wetland complex capable of mitigating storm flooding were destroyed when the dominant thought process was that wetlands were a nuisance to be battled against.

Ohio has lost 90 percent of the natural wetlands once present on the landscape, second only to California. If there’s any silver lining in those numbers, it’s that now the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area is the largest remaining wetland area in Ohio, outside of the Lake Erie basin.

The benefits of wetlands are too numerous to talk about here, so I want to wrap up by thinking about what could have been or what could be in five, 10 or 50 years from now.

If we had more wetlands paralleling the river, how many adjacent crop fields would be saved from being waterlogged?

If we hadn’t cut back so many trees and built homes and businesses in the riparian areas and floodplains, would the river banks be more stable and able to handle the flow from large rain storms?

According to the EPA’s website, “The bottomland hardwood-riparian wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored at least 60 days of floodwater. Now they store only 12 days because most have been filled or drained.”

In our wetter-than-ever spring, can we even fathom how valuable more wetland ground would have been to absorb 60 days worth of water? What could we be reporting on 50 years from now about the local efforts made to save the ground and livelihoods of the people who live around here?

I’d like to think Theodore Roosevelt would be proud we heeded his words: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

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