Wetlands are disappearing quickly across the United States

A great blue heron flies to a nesting platform near the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Wildlife Education Center and Farmington Bay in Davis County on Monday, March 25, 2024.
A great blue heron flies to a nesting platform near the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Wildlife Education Center and Farmington Bay in Davis County on Monday, March 25, 2024.

A new report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals wetlands — 95% of which are freshwater — covered less than 6% of the lower 48 states as of 2019. That is half the area they covered two centuries ago.

The report also identifies that loss rates have increased by 50% since 2009 and underscores the need for additional conservation actions.

“The reasons for these losses are multiple, but the results are clear — wetland loss leads to the reduced health, safety and prosperity of all Americans,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This report serves as a call to action to stop and reverse wetland loss and ensure we continue to provide future generations with clean water, protection against natural disasters, and resilience to climate change and sea level rise, as well as habitat for many plants and animals.”

The sixth edition of the national “Wetlands Status and Trends” report to Congress measured wetland change from 2009 to 2019 and builds on data from a series of reports spanning 70 years, highlighting the importance of wetlands.

While agriculture is a culprit by filling in the wetlands, the report also points to climate change and drought.

The report notes that wetlands are one of the most productive and biodiverse habitats, with 40% of all plant and animal species living or breeding in wetlands. Threatened and endangered species are no exception, with approximately half of all Endangered Species Act species in the United States being wetland dependent.

In addition, wetlands hold and slowly release flood water and snow melt, buffer against coastal storms, recharge groundwater, act as filters to cleanse water of impurities, recycle nutrients and provide recreational opportunities for millions of people. Wetlands are also nurseries for many salt and freshwater fishes and shellfish of commercial and recreational importance.

The Utah Geological Survey notes that wetlands in this state are quite varied, ranging from small, isolated spring complexes in the West Desert to cottonwood and willow stands stretching for miles along some of Utah’s larger rivers like the Colorado or Green.

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Farmington Bay is pictured in Davis County on Monday, March 25, 2024.

In fact, The Nature Conservancy invested $1 million to construct a wetlands nursery in Moab off the Colorado River to help give the endangered razorback sucker a fighting chance of survival.

The project wrapped up in 2020, but because of the drought and COVID-19, results were not immediately clear.

“We’re the only significant wetland along the Colorado River in the state of Utah. So we do have wetland habitat, which supports a tremendous diversity of native plants and animals. So it’s really important stuff,” said Linda Whitham, central Canyonlands program manager for the Utah Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

She said “wetlands or marshes” had a bad reputation back in the day and were not desirable.

“They’re places that can smell because you get a lot of rotting vegetation. They are breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” she said. “So in the 1800s there were huge efforts to drain and fill the wetlands across the United States, which we realized in hindsight was a very bad, very bad thing.”

After a couple of dry years, the wet weather helped The Nature Conservancy celebrate its success. Whitham said last year, wildlife biologists documented 51 razorback suckers who had thrived due to the wetland work.

“We felt enormously successful,” she said.

Other unique wetlands in Utah include the hanging gardens of the Colorado Plateau like the Weeping Rock of Zion National Park, montane fens and wet meadows like Christmas Meadows in the Uinta National Forest, and large, unvegetated, highly saline playas in desert basins such as Sevier Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Why wetlands are important

Regardless of how Utah’s wetlands are classified, wetlands are rare, the survey notes.

Vegetated wetlands like wet meadows or marshes account for roughly 1% of Utah’s total land cover and waterbodies such as lakes, ponds or flowing rivers account for another 2-3% of Utah’s total land cover, with Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake composing much of that cover, the survey said. Unvegetated features, less commonly thought of as wetlands, are actually the most common wetlands in Utah. Features like playas, dry washes, and shorelines account for roughly 5-8% of Utah’s land cover, largely due to two playas, Bonneville Salt Flats and Sevier Lake, and the exposed shoreline of Great Salt Lake.

Of course, the Great Salt Lake is the star in Utah when it comes to wetlands.

The extensive marshes, mudflats and meadows surrounding the saline lake are the most well known, as they make up roughly 33% of the vegetated wetlands in Utah and provide crucial stop-over, wintering and nesting habitat for millions of shorebirds and waterfowl.

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A great blue heron flies over Farmington Bay near the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Wildlife Education Center in Davis County on Monday, March 25, 2024.