Wetlands are extremely valuable to society. Wetlands can decrease flooding, remove pollutants from water, recharge groundwater, protect shorelines, provide habitat for wildlife, and serve important recreational and cultural functions. The Mississippi River Delta ecosystems alone provide at least $12 – 47 billion in benefits to people every year. If this natural capital were treated like an economic asset, the present value of the Mississippi Delta would be between $330 billion and $1.3 trillion. Taken as a whole, it is estimated that the aggregate value of services generated by wetlands throughout the world is $4.9 trillion per year (Costanza et al. 1997).
If wetlands are lost, the cost of replacing them can be extremely expensive, if at all possible. Lost wetlands can result in a city having to invest more money in drinking water treatment or higher costs to citizens for flood insurance.
Flood Water Storage
Wetlands act as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water over time. This ability to store water in times of heavy rainfall means that wetlands can help prevent flooding. A one acre wetland can typically store about one million gallons of water, though the degree of flood control depends on many factors such as the type of wetland and soil permeability. Wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored at least 60 days of floodwater, but now only store 12 days because most have been filled or drained.
Coastal wetlands are particularly important in the Gulf region because they can help reduce flooding from hurricane storm surges. Many of the coastal areas in the Gulf are in flat or low-lying areas, which are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms. It is estimated that for every 3.4 miles of healthy coastal wetlands a storm surge must travel over, the surge is diminished by one foot.
Preserving wetlands, in conjunction with other flood control measures, often offers superior flood protection and costs less than a conventional system of dikes, levees, floodways, and stormwater retention ponds. As the cost of flood insurance continues to rise in coastal areas throughout the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to preserve wetlands, which truly are the first line of defense against flooding.
Wetlands have the remarkable ability to improve the quality of water by filtering runoff and removing sediment, nutrients, pesticides, metals, and other types of pollutants. In the Gulf of Mexico, wetlands play an extremely important role by helping to decrease the amount of pollution that enters the Gulf and protecting shorelines from erosion. These services are quite valuable to communities and the people who live near wetlands.
For example, without the Congaree Bottomland Hardwood Swamp in South Carolina, the area would need a $5 million waste water treatment plant. Another study found that wetlands surrounding 15 seafood processing plants in Louisiana provided treatment to the wastewater, saving the processing plants $6,000 to $10,000 per acre of wetland (Breaux et al., 1995).
Habitat / Nursery
Wetlands provide important habitat to countless bird, fish, and native plant species. In the Gulf of Mexico region, some of the species of birds that live in wetlands include white egrets, ibises, anhingas, blue herons, and roseate spoonbills. In fact, wetlands are some of the most productive ecosystems in world. Wetlands provide a habitat for more aquatic and terrestrial species on an area basis than any other habitat type, making them among the most ecologically important ecosystems on earth (Comer et al., 2005). In the Gulf, wetlands are also home to many endangered species such as the Louisiana black bear, wood stork, snail kite, and Bachman’s warbler. In fact, more than one-third of the United States' threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands.
Wetlands also serve as a nursery for many important marine species. About 98% of the commercial fish and shellfish harvested in the Gulf of Mexico are dependent on estuaries for food, protection, or reproduction. These estuaries are extremely important to the $2.8 billion per year that is generated by commercial Gulf of Mexico fisheries. Some of the important Gulf species that are wetland-dependent include blue crabs, brown shrimp, oysters, striped bass, flounder, and menhaden.
There are numerous cultures that are have been heavily influenced by or rely upon wetlands. In the Gulf, a prominent culture that is often connected with wetlands is the Cajun culture. Some Cajuns who live along bayous and wetlands rely upon those wetlands for fishing, hunting, and trapping. Cajun cuisine is based heavily upon wetland dependent species such as shrimp and crawfish.
Numerous indigenous tribes in the Gulf of Mexico region are also closely connected with wetlands. In Louisiana, loss of coastal wetlands has affected members of the United Houma Nation, many of whom live in southern Louisiana. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is also connected with the wetlands of South Florida in the Everglades and Big Cypress regions. The Seminole’s culture depends on healthy natural resources for fishing, hunting, and leading nature tours.
There are many recreational activities that are dependent on wetlands. More than half of all adults in the U.S. engage in hunting, fishing, bird watching, boating, or wildlife photography; much of which is dependent on wetlands. Waterfowl hunters alone spend an estimated $600 million a year. According to a 2001 estimate, anglers spent an estimated $14.7 billion for fishing trips, $17 billion for equipment, and $4 billion in miscellaneous costs (USFWS, 2002). Wetlands are also an ideal place for learning. Many schoolchildren participate in hands-on activities in wetlands that raise environmental awareness.