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  • Shannon Carnevale

American Wetlands Month

May is American Wetlands Month, and with one-fifth of the nation’s wetlands, Florida is the perfect place to appreciate the beauty and importance of these ecosystems. Home to various types of wetlands, these areas provide crucial habitats for threatened and endangered species, help maintain water quality, and protect our communities from flooding while contributing to the state’s rich biodiversity.


Tiger Creek Preserve

Wetlands are unique and complex transitional areas between dry upland ecosystems and waterways. They can take many forms, including saltwater marshes, mangrove forests, inland wetlands connected to lakes and rivers, or even seasonal wetlands that fill up during summer rains. The duration a wetland remains wet, called its hydroperiod, dictates the species found there and shapes the intricate balance of life within these ecosystems. Florida has a distinct dry season (November – April) and rainy season (May – October), which further adds to the dynamic nature of wetlands.


Wetlands serve as natural buffers against stormwater and flooding, acting as vital components of our landscape. The dark, organic matter in wetland soils swells when filled with water, helping to store floodwaters and keeping them away from our residential areas. By restoring wetlands on the edges of our communities and reconnecting them to existing water bodies, we can enhance natural surface water storage capacity and improve water quality, reducing the impact of summer storms and even hurricanes. These benefits extend beyond protecting human settlements and help preserve vital ecosystems.


The Green Swamp is a prime example of Polk County’s large historical wetland areas, showcasing the incredible diversity of these ecosystems. It provides flood protection and serves as a crucial recharge area for the Floridan aquifer and several area rivers. Polk County also has successful municipal wetland restoration projects, such as Lake Gwen, Lake Hancock, and Lake Conine. These projects aimed to restore natural wetlands or add engineered wetlands to improve water quality and provide storage capacity for the surrounding areas, while also fostering vibrant habitats for local wildlife.


Wetlands play a critical role in maintaining water quality, acting as Earth’s natural filtration system. Disconnected from their natural wetlands, lakes, rivers, and coastal areas often experience higher nutrient loading and more frequent algae blooms, which can have disastrous effects on water quality and aquatic life. The tannic waters and soil microbiota in wetlands help filter and process nutrient contamination, highlighting the essential role these ecosystems play in maintaining a healthy environment. And so, if you care about healthy lakes and rivers, then you should also care about healthy wetlands.


Circle B Bar Reserve and the Lake Hancock Wetlands projects are great examples of engineered wetlands that improve water quality for their neighboring lake and river. Circle B’s wetland areas clean the water flowing from Saddle Creek before the water continues into Lake Hancock, protecting the floodplain and restoring the Banana Creek marsh system. Then, before the water leaves Lake Hancock for the Peace River, the water flows through the  constructed wetlands of the Lake Hancock project to clean up the water before it is released into the Peace River. Eventually, this water makes it all the way down to Charlotte Harbor. These successful initiatives demonstrate the effectiveness of well-designed wetland restoration projects in achieving multiple environmental goals. 


Another example of a constructed wetland treatment facility is the Se7en Wetlands Park in Lakeland. Se7en Wetlands park has been an engineered water treatment wetland for decades but recently re-opened as a recreational area. There are, appropriately, seven wetland treatment cells that the City of Lakeland’s cleaned wastewater travels through before connecting to the North Prong of the Alafia River, which flows directly to Tampa Bay. Se7en Wetlands also provides water for Tampa Electric Company’s Polk Power Station. 


Florida’s wetlands are home to a diverse range of wildlife, from our state reptile, the American alligator, to the roseate spoonbill (state-listed threatened) and federally endangered wood stork. They provide habitats for mammals like marsh rabbits and raccoons and host numerous small fish species that help reduce mosquito-borne illnesses. These vibrant ecosystems are also crucial for migratory birds, which rely on wetlands as stopover points during their seasonal journeys. 


A local initiative that underscores the importance of wetland restoration is the City of Winter Haven’s “Sapphire Necklace” project. This ambitious long-term initiative aims to create a network of restored wetlands encircling the city, providing both ecological benefits and recreational opportunities for residents. The project, part of a 50 year effort, demonstrates a commitment to preserving and enhancing wetlands for future generations, showcasing the dedication required to protect these valuable ecosystems. 


Despite their many benefits, Florida’s wetlands face threats from development and outdated public opinion. People once believed that wetlands harbored disease and dangerous wildlife, but we now understand their vital importance to Florida’s future, economy, and the enjoyment of the state’s water resources. Current policy protects many wetlands from the threat of true development within their borders. However, there are some ways around this, if the profitability is estimated to be high enough. One such way in Florida involves something called mitigation banks. Theoretically, if you are causing harm to a wetland and you get approval from the managing agency, you can spend money to restore wetlands somewhere else in an existing mitigation bank. Essentially, you are moving that wetland’s benefits away from wherever you’re developing into wherever you buy mitigation bank credits. It’s a bit abstract, but the end result is that the area developed loses the wetland area, and wherever the mitigation bank happens to be, they may see some restoration benefits for their wetlands.


Being at the top of the watershed, Polk County does not typically benefit from mitigation bank credits. If we want improved water quality in our region and the many other benefits from wetlands, such as flood protection and wildlife habitat, we need to ensure that wetlands here are protected here, and not where a mitigation bank may be located. This calls for a renewed commitment from local communities, businesses, and policymakers to prioritize wetland conservation and restoration. By protecting and restoring our wetlands, we can help ensure a healthier and more sustainable Florida for generations to come.


A heightened awareness of the importance of wetlands and support for initiatives like the many upcoming municiapl wetland restoration projects will enable us to work together in maintaining these crucial ecosystems, safeguarding the many benefits they provide for our communities and environment. To find out about wetland resotration projects near you, reach out to your city hall and ask! 


As we celebrate American Wetlands Month, let us remember the immense value of these ecosystems and commit to preserving them for the health of our planet and the well-being of future generations. 

The best thing you can do for American Wetlands Month is to build your connection to these amazing ecosystems! Visit one of the parks discussed here. Look for wetlands while you visit any of our State and National Parks and take a moment to appreciate all they do for us. Tell your friends and family all about wetlands and the amazing services they perform. Help us spread the word that wetlands are wonderful and we need them.


By fostering a greater appreciation for wetlands and advocating for their conservation, we can create a lasting legacy that benefits both people and wildlife.


Photograph by Amy Sexson

 

Learn more about the projects discussed here: 
Winter Haven’s Sapphire Necklace Project:storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/73ea131e01ec4baa9baf982238aa77f7 
Circle B Bar & Polk’s Nature Discovery Center:polknature.com/explore/circle-b-bar-reserve 
Lake Hancock Constructed Wetlands Project:swfwmd.state.fl.us/projects/lake-hancock-outfall-treatment-project 

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