03 February 2009

Happy (belated) World Wetlands Day!

Yesterday, 2 February, was not just a day to watch for the groundhog's shadow. Besides, it turns out he's right only about 30% of the time anyway - you can flip a coin for better odds on guessing the arrival of spring, especially if you live outside of Pennsylvania.

The date also marked the anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands that was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. As articulated in a statement developed in 2002, ''the Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.'' Since its inception, 158 parties (countries, protectorates, and former states) have signed the Convention and collectively designated more than 170 million hectares (1.7M km2) in 1,831 wetlands sites for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

The global group Wetlands International represents the Ramsar Convention in issues of advocacy, publicity, and fund-raising for awareness and conservation initiatives. In 2009, the theme of World Wetlands Day is ''Upstream-Downstream'' in order to highlight the connectivity that wetlands provide among all peoples along river systems and, quite often, across borders. More specifically, the stated theme ''highlights how the world’s wetlands are connected to millions of people whose livelihoods, safety and security depend on them for water supply and their capacity to help regulate floods. Climate change will considerably magnify the problems that ongoing degradation of these river basins will bring to nature and people. Increasing the resilience of these wetlands is therefore a fundamental issue that must be part of climate change adaptation strategies.''

A repeated plea follows on their website:
Wetlands International urges governments, development organizations and finance institutions to integrate wetland conservation and restoration into climate change adaptation and development strategies to maintain and enhance the resilience of these ecosystems and millions of people.
It is certainly reassuring to have a global organization (outside of climate scientists themselves) recognize not only the facts of climate change, but also one of the many ways in which the climate system operates in such complex feedback cycles that natural features such as wetlands can continue to mitigate the impacts of environmental change, no matter the sources or drivers of those changes. Vast wetlands are found on every continent (save Antarctica, as far as I know) and occur in almost all climate zones, from the deep tropics to the Arctic circle. Ongoing conservation projects stretch from the Baltic Sea to the limits of the South American and Australian river systems. The city of Ramsar itself is nestled in the middle of six designated wetlands sites in Iran alone along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea in central Asia. Wetlands International provides a Ramsar Sites Information Service from which you can download and visualize all of the designated wetlands sites around the world using Google Earth.

Of course, wetlands are far more extensive that just those listed as Ramsar sites, as shown in this global map produced by the USDA NRCS: (click on the map for a larger version)
A recent article in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera (thanks to the SAHRA Global Water News Watch for a summary translation) indicates that about 60% of global wetlands, and 90% of wetlands in Europe, have disappeared due to development and related impacts. We have simply not recognized, as a society, the importance of wetlands to our livelihood: wetlands provide invaluable services, not only removing pollutants from water but absorbing coastal floodwaters as well as 35% of the world's carbon dioxide. We have seen the physical results of wetlands in degraded conditions: Hurricane Katrina crossed the outer shoals of Louisiana and Mississippi with a storm surge almost unimpeded into the inner coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico to bring about unprecedented damage. Where wetlands provide ecosystem services, such as filtration of river contaminants and diminution of flood surges, those downstream suffer the impacts of poor conservations practices, often by unrelated upstream neighbors and the commercial interests at work on the superior lands.

Given the vast biodiversity at home in wetlands communities, sometimes greater than that supported by tropical rainforests, the WWF has taken up the cause of wetlands awareness and conservation. The International Congress of Ecology formed the INTECOL Wetland Working Group in 1978 and just last summer (winter in the Pantanal of South America, where the Congress met) drafted the "Cuiabá Declaration on Wetlands" regarding the "State of Wetlands and their Role in a World of Global Climate Change." In summary,
Wetlands are at the interface between land and water, cover about 5% of the global terrestrial surface and are widely used by humans, support biodiversity, and are a necessary part of our common future under global climate change. In some, but not all instances, wetlands provide flood protection, fiber and food, enhance water quality, and protect economic services. Their natural and ecosystem 'services' are compromised in different ways at the local, regional and national level, through inappropriate land use, nutrient over-enrichment, water management and storage, and climate change. There is unacceptable lack of knowledge about their areal extent and quality which can be remedied with existing technology and resources for research and management purposes. The Ramsar Convention, a global agreement of international significance can be, and often is, an effective policy instrument protecting wetlands, but is underutilized by the signatories and does not have enough participation worldwide.
Looking at the Ramsar map of designated sites, this underutilization and lack of participation is especially evident in the U.S.: since entering the Ramsar Convention in 1987, only 24 sites in the U.S. with a total area of approximately 1.3 million hectares have been designated as Ramsar sites. One of those, the Everglades in southern Florida, constitute almost half of that designated area, and just two more sites make up an additional one-quarter of the designated area in the United States. What we may have here is a surfeit of bureaucracy: the delineation of wetlands falls under the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who then take on the responsibility of management in accordance with the Clean Water Act as enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, all subject to overlapping jurisdiction of the National Park Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, various riparian contracts and agreements (especially along the Colorado River), and various interests at the state and local levels. And on top of all that, the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in once in a while: in the case Rapanos v. United States in 2006, the esteemed Justices wound up in a split decision (4-4 with 1 abstention) over a lower court's ruling that federal protection can be extended to small tributaries and wetlands near, but not directly abutting, navigable waters. This designation of "navigable waters" is the crux of the USACE's operations and protection plans; apparently, if a stream or water body is non-navigable, it must not need protection under the Clean Water Act. The more liberal Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer noted that ''as the wetlands and their inhabitants go, so goes the entire watershed.''

Justice Kennedy suggested that, to come within federal protection, regulators must make a scientific determination that the wetland in question has a significant hydrological "nexus" to a navigable water body [italics mine]. Here's where the hydrologists come in! The Ramsar Convention, Wetlands International, INTECOL, and innumerable water-related organizations around the world all attempt to make this very point: all hydrology is connected, whether over, on, or under the ground. Rainfall and climate must be taken into account in assessments of surface water availability. The principle of conjunctive use dictates that surface sources and subsurface aquifers are connected. In the last two centuries, the U.S. has lost more than half of its original wetlands to development and the USACE's version of ''reclamation,'' and more than half of those remaining are no longer connected in a ''significant hydrological nexus'' to still-navigable waterways. At the same time, wetlands provide connectivity among all peoples along and across river systems, and an integrated view toward assessment and management is fundamental to wetlands survival, resilience, and sustainability.

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