For Ontarians, some of our most beloved summertime activities revolve around the spectacular Great Lakes. Swimming, boating, fishing and paddling attract millions of us to the waterfront to enjoy time with friends and family (or just ourselves!) out in nature.
Behind the scenes of our summertime fun, there is a secret key actor working overtime to maintain the health and quality of the water: wetlands.
Wetlands are nature’s water purification system; they are constantly filtering out pollutants, sediments and excess nutrients to supply clean water and maintain ecological balance. Researchers Tariq Aziz and Philippe Van Cappellen at the University of Waterloo found in a recent study that wetlands provide an estimated $4.2 billion worth of sediment and phosphorus filtration each year, helping to keep our drinking water, lakes, and rivers clean. Aziz states: “Wetlands are earth’s most valuable ecosystems; these diverse and complex systems provide enormous benefits to humans and other forms of life but are often overlooked.”
Despite the ecological and economic benefits that wetlands provide, the Government has failed to appreciate and protect them. In Southern Ontario, we have lost over 70 percent of our wetlands – over 85 percent in places like Niagara, Toronto, and Essex, Lambton, Kent, Perth and Middlesex Counties. And the loss continues, exacerbating environmental problems such as flooding, water pollution, algal blooms, loss of biodiversity, and shoreline erosion.
Aziz and Cappellen’s study puts a dollar value on one aspect of wetland loss. Simply put, if we continue to dismiss the importance of wetlands, we will need to invest billions in alternative methods to clean water.
The researchers assessed the alternative costs of replacing wetlands with three human-made solutions. Here’s the potential annual bill for each option: 1) constructing wetlands to replace the existing services would cost $2.9 billion per year; 2) using agricultural Best Management Practices to remove phosphorus would cost $13 billion per year; and 3) replacing wetlands by expanding wastewater treatment plants would cost an astounding $164 billion a year.
As Aziz points out, “It is much more cost-effective to protect our existing wetlands than going for conventional land management and water treatment options.”
Wetlands operate within a network: the physical, biological, and hydrological features of the land are all connected and have cascading effects on the environment. While wetlands play a key role in filtration, Aziz suggests that their capacity to do so is not unlimited: “government actors need to invest in reducing water and watershed pollution so that our wetlands are not further choked.” Action must be taken to ensure that environmental policies and plans for economic development are coherent with protection of water resources.
Through wetland conservation and restoration policies and practices, we can mitigate the harmful effects that pollution and excess nutrients have on the water, such as algal blooms or contamination. Immediate action is needed so we and future generations can continue to enjoy these ecosystems for years to come.
Jenna is Ontario Nature's Protected Places Assessment Coordinator. Her work supports the Protected Places Campaign by providing visual communication of significant environmental features and conducting spatial analyses of protected places. She has graduated from the ecosystem management technology program at Fleming College and has earned a B.Sc. in environmental science from Trent University. Jenna has a deep passion for wildlife and the environment and can always be found in nature where she enjoys camping, cooking over fires, hiking and wildlife photography.