Why protect wetlands?

When the U.S. government protects wetlands, it is maintaining or restoring natural water purity, controlling for floods, and protecting the habitats of birds, fish and other animals, as well as other vital biodiversity.

Uncontrolled development and the climate crisis put wetlands in peril, says James Salzman, an environmental law professor with joint appointments at the University of California’s Los Angeles and Santa Barbara campuses.

Protecting wetlands — including bogs, swamps, fens and marshes — is fundamental for a changing world.

“When the early settlers came [to the United States], their job, as they saw it, was to reclaim that land — that often meant draining wetlands so they could farm or build,” Salzman says. “The law had no wetlands protection until the early 1970s because people didn’t appreciate [the wetlands’] value. They were seen as swamps — useless except for breeding mosquitoes.”

A remarkable transformation

Passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 marked a significant change. By setting quality standards for surface waters and pollutant discharges, the new law made it more difficult to fill wetlands. In 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush launched the “no net loss” campaign to protect wetlands. The federal policy ever since, Salzman says, has been to replace any harmed wetland with a wetland of the same or larger size and of similar function and value.

“There’s been this evolution of how we think about wetlands, from things to be basically avoided and essentially destroyed to valuable features of landscape that are explicitly protected by law,” Salzman says. “That’s a remarkable transformation.”

Today, the U.S. spends millions of dollars on wetlands projects at home and abroad.

Men in coveralls and hard hats bending over digging in dirt (USAID/Gabriel Rojas)
Restorers work on a high-altitude area of Peru’s Carampoma wetlands. (USAID/Gabriel Rojas)

Getting real results

In Peru, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provides technical assistance on a restoration project for the Carampoma wetland, which retains water during rainy seasons and releases it slowly during dry seasons, feeding nearby lagoons and streams. This will ameliorate Peruvian rivers’ deficits (during dry season) and surpluses (during rainy season), which had already worsened due to climate change and human activities.

USAID is partnering with the regional water utility on at least 22 similar projects to restore water sources for cities all over Peru and avoid shortages for millions of Peruvians.

In Mexico, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, working in cooperation with the Mexican government, uses aerial imagery to map the 142 wetlands that fall under the Ramsar Convention, a treaty that provides for the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

Aerial image of green lowlands, blue water and the curvature of the Earth (© Gabriela de la Fuente de León/Credit Ducks Unlimited de Mexico)
U.S. planes and satellites photograph Mexican wetlands such as this one. (© Gabriela de la Fuente de León/Credit Ducks Unlimited de Mexico)

Data collected from the project, which will run through 2024, will help Mexico report the status of those wetlands sites to the larger Ramsar community.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has another mapping project underway in Alaska to update its public wetlands data. The project, slated to last five years, will help federal, state and tribal agencies in land-use planning.

“Conserving wetlands is incredibly important for us to try to mitigate climate change and, frankly, it’s a lot cheaper than putting up physical barriers,” says Jonathan Phinney, branch manager for the National Wetlands Inventory.

“[Wetlands] provide flood control by storing water and lessen the impacts from storm surge along the coasts,” he says.