The Importance of Freshwater Wetlands

The Importance of Freshwater Wetlands

Naturally speaking, wetlands act like a sponge, trapping water and then slowly releasing it back into the watershed, helping to control the amount and speed of the water going to major water bodies. This has the added benefit of reducing erosion along lake shores and stream and river banks. It has been estimated that a one acre wetland with a one foot depth can retain approximately 326,000 gallons of water. As wetlands are destroyed, the result is more water flowing directly into a watershed and causing increased flooding.

Regardless of size, freshwater wetlands contain a diverse range of plant and animal species, including some species that are exceptionally rare. In addition to providing essential habitats for many species of migratory waterfowl, for numerous threatened, endangered, or species of special concern, such as the Bald Eagle and Osprey, and for numerous other amphibian, avian, fish, and wildlife species, these plant communities also provide countless other ecological and economic benefits. From storm water runoff control and flood protection, to improving water quality by filtering pollutants, pesticides and sediments from the water, helping to reduce costs to municipalities to clean up their water resources, freshwater wetlands are extremely valuable resources that need the utmost protection from the State and Federal government.

Currently, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has the authority to regulate wetlands 12.4 acres or greater that are mapped, while the federal government (EPA and Army Corp.) has authority over the rest. However, a 2001 Supreme Court ruling in Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. United States Army Corps of Engineers limited the federal government’s authority to regulate certain "isolated" wetlands under the Clean Water Act. "Isolated wetlands" are wetlands that are not connected by navigable surface water to waters of the U.S. Since that time, the federal government has backed away even further from protecting these extremely important areas, and now the state must step in and fill the gap.

The bi-partisan Clean Water Protection/ Flooding Prevention Act, sponsored by Senator Carl Marcellino and Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, would decrease the size threshold for DEC regulation of freshwater wetlands to one acre or larger, thus increasing the State’s ability to protect these ecosystems. This legislation also greatly increases the State’s ability to properly manage these habitats for the benefit of all New York’s citizens, birds, and wildlife by removing the mapping requirements for regulation. This legislation has passed in the Assembly, but stalled in the Senate.

As New York remains the only State in the northeast to have a size restriction on the regulation of small freshwater wetlands, Audubon New York will continue to advocate for passage of any measure that will increase protection of our important freshwater wetlands.