Wetlands at a Crossroads: Constructing and Maintaining Wetlands


Creative Commons Wetland, Gouldsboro State Park, Monroe and Wayne Counties” by Nicholas_T is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The U.S. is at a crossroads in public education. Achievement gaps are widening, trust in public schools is dwindling, and American students are falling behind their counterparts worldwide. As we scramble to find solutions, heated controversy around methods of evaluation has arisen. Public confidence in the validity of standardized testing has plummeted, and an increasing proportion of students are now opting out of standardized testing. Are the current methods of testing valid? How important is it that we implement standardized testing? If we are educating students for the purpose of their function in society, how can we test for qualities that are the best indicators of their future success? Believe it or not, these types of questions are just as urgent and relevant in the field of wetland ecology. In the same way that education in the U.S. has reached a crossroads, wetland restoration has also reached a crossroads, which calls for innovative solutions and accurate methods of evaluation.

Wetlands are areas where water covers or is present near the soil surface for periods of or the entire year; they fall into four general categories in the U.S.: marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. Water presence plays an influential role in shaping wetland ecosystems, which support both aquatic and terrestrial species. Wetlands provide essential ecosystem services that are closely tied to human quality of life: they maintain water quality, replenish groundwater, provide flood protection, control shoreline erosion, host a diversity of fish and wildlife habitat, contribute to the economy via natural products, and possess recreational and aesthetic value. Unfortunately, these ecosystem services are at increasing risk of being lost as we continue to experience rapid wetland loss across the globe as a result of physical destruction and pollution. Over 50% of the world’s wetland surface has been lost during the last century, and we are continuing to lose wetland acreage at an alarming rate worldwide.

Wetland ecologists have made a push to utilize constructed wetlands to increase wetland acreage. Stefan Weisner, Professor of Biology at Halmstad University, says about constructed wetlands, ”It’s a very effective way of purifying the water… in addition, it contributes to biological diversity.” However, as this is still a relatively new approach, wetland ecologists are still figuring out the best way to evaluate success of these constructed wetlands. As wetland degradation attracts worldwide attention and more resources are invested in wetland construction, we increasingly need accurate evaluation measures to ensure that we allocate resources wisely.

The previous evaluation standard of taxonomic diversity (species diversity) is being questioned in a manner similar to that of standardized testing in education: Are the current methods of testing valid? How important is it that we implement standardized testing? If we are constructing wetlands for the purpose of their ecosystem services, how can we evaluate and test for qualities that are the best indicators of their future prolonged success? Wetland ecologists are exploring more comprehensive indicators of successful wetland restoration.

Cecilia Español of Universidad San Jorge in Spain led a team of researchers in evaluating functional diversity as a new indicator of success in wetland restoration, and they published their findings in Aquatic Sciences. Instead of focusing solely on taxonomic diversity, with a strong emphasis on numbers alone, they also looked at functional richness and Shannon-Wiener functional diversity, which are diversity indices that are related to species functions such as reproduction, dispersal, food sources, and feeding habits. These are equally important indicators that must be considered at all stages of wetland restoration to ensure long-term success of constructed wetland ecosystems in supporting key species and ecosystem functions. It’s crucial to take findings like Español’s and implement them in constructing and maintaining wetlands to maximize effectiveness.

Critics may argue that wetland destruction is required to accommodate for human needs. However, though the destruction of wetlands may provide short-term benefits, they certainly do not outweigh the long-term, potentially irreversible costs.

Wetlands are an invaluable natural resource, and they play a critical role in sustained ecosystem services and human quality of life worldwide. Thus, it is important to continue investing resources into optimizing the evaluation of wetlands so we are better informed about best practices for wetland construction, management, and protection moving forward.

This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2015. Bookmark the permalink.

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