Water is a fundamental survival need for all living things. It’s right up there with fresh air to breath and safe food to eat, but often, it’s thought of as an impediment, especially on the landscape. It’s drained out of mosquito festering swamps, dammed to produce power and retain enough drinking water for heavily populated regions. We pump it up hill and through thousands of miles of desert in the south west for crops and cities, preventing rivers from reaching the ocean. Out of all the features man has most altered, wetlands hold the number one spot, as once they are drained, you have a perfectly flat terrain to develop. Though wetland are a signal of low lying land, prone to flooding, it’s also holding rich bottom land soil for agricultural success. In The Netherlands, most of the country exists because of well built canals and pumping station to remove vast brackish marshlands for huge dairy farms. Today, Afsluitdijk, a 20 mile causeway, has turned an inland sea into a brackish lake, it’s ecology is collapsing. Then, this small European nation on The North sea, who battled ocean and marsh, now flexed monumental hydro-engineering prowess and produced Zuiderzee Works, adding an additional 620 square miles to a country of 16,000.
I’ve spent a little time in The Netherlands, and driven over Afsluitdiijk more than once. I’ve also spent a little time in The Waddenzee, specifically Lauwersmeer National Park, and the fishing port of Lauwersoog. Here, the polder run right up against some of the wildest parts of The Netherlands. For a country about the size of Rhode Island here in USA, this strange development of man and sea is worth taking a look at for examples of wetland abuse and restoration reuse. There is a long history of dismissing and destroying nature for the development (progress) of mankind, and our species is still eager and willing to displace the natural world just a little bit more for personal gain at the cost of whole system health- as in- that fresh drinking water, clean air, and safe to eat food we all need to survive. But even in The Netherlands, where so much alteration of wetland habitat, there is also restoration and wildness. On a more positive note, a purposed example of large scale wetland restoration, Marker Wadden, is something to ponder. It’s a great example of massive human alteration of wetland “rehabilitated“. Though to be sure, humans fall short of nature’s complex evolutionary symphony. Let’s also not forget that Afsluitdijk, a modern wonder of the world, is in need of reinforcing against rising sea level, along with most coastal regions world wide, which are also the most heavily populated.
Vast population success is responsible for most ecological destruction on our planet at this time. When humans embraces settlement, accepted civilization, and cooperated en-mass for thriving, they did leave behind surviving, which seems like a good thing, but we’ve evolved into a sedentary population of compulsive consumers. Granted, agriculture as we know it today was born out of The Industrial Revolution, only about 200 years ago.
How did agriculture lead to the development of civilization?
Farming allowed humans to form permanent settlements and abandon their nomadic ways. Humans shifted from hunting and gathering models to fixed farming villages. As populations increased due to the increased surplus of food, urban areas surfaced. The surplus of food also led to developments that spawned civilization. –What Where Why
But by the colonial era- several thousand years into agricultural evolution and dehumanization, arable land invited settlement, and in the 1800s, a mostly European population explosion and the advent of steam ship Atlantic crossing, followed by steam train westward expansion, compelled millions to grab up what they could. The New World suggested untouched resources and endless tracks of land for ownership. Feudal dominion, characterized by land deeds of private ownership, are still used today. The psychology of domination and subjugation still run deep in western thinking, and until we can transcend this instilled belief, we’ll continue the degradation of our selves, and the natural world. The eventuality is self destruction. But the wetlands! Why is this about the wetlands?
North America was colonized and transformed into the mirror image of Western Europe. Early colonizers saw marshes as impediments, treating them as they did back home by digging canals to drain the water from the surface to make land arable and accessible to all kinds of development. My family lives in one of these marshes on The East Coast. There’s a sign at the head of the road for “The Ministers Wood Lot”. This area was settled in the late 1600 for farming; marshes were drained for salt hay while oak forests were chopped to build infrastructure and heat homes. Early records show European people using the land in much the same way they had for thousands of year elsewhere- to the complete detriment of the regions they migrated from. In the area of Rowley, English colonials settled, the Dutch, from The Netherlands (thought I’d bridge that saga of wetland drama back in) were colonizing New Amsterdam a little further up the coast. What Manhattan Island might have looked like before marshland destruction is hard too comprehend, but this guy comes close. The land these colonists now sewed with stupidity, had been tended by indigenous people for thousands of years in retaliative ecological balance- as in, the populations were not profit driven and did not need to consume for pure financial gain. The original “Americans” were not migrant refugees of mindless consumption, but they would be devoured by a plague of Anglo-European locusts.
Dominion thinking was a product of the desperation created in ecological decimation. This was seen as the best kind of progress for man’s exploitation of the land, and it’s still the mindset of most people buying and developing land today. The complex systems of nature are impossible for us to fully comprehend, but here’s some research on the role wetlands play, and what happens when they are drained away for development. Marshes and wetlands hold an abundance of fresh water, which they also help to filter, clean, and redistribute into groundwater reserves. Wetlands offer incredible ecological habitat, think of The Amazon, what a massive (well, it’s shrinking fast) web of life producing the world’s fresh air and water. It’s decimation is our last gasping breath, yet our own convenience elsewhere is driving the devastation. Right here at home, there are still many wetland ecosystems we could restore and with them, perhaps take advice from the indigenous people who still live and tend what they can in a patchwork of nightmarish bureaucracy of today’s federal system.
Until the 1980s, with the creation of The Environmental Protection Agency, wetlands here in The United States were thought of as impediments to civil progress, a sort of worthless wilderness to be drained and domesticated. European monarchs were thrilled to have their subjects settling in what seemed, in the 1700s, like endless tracks of unclaimed land. Established tribes of millions of people already settled and in close relationship to “The New World” were eradicated through disease, enslavement, African slaves were also imported, and all endured forced religious conversion. If indigenous people did survive into the 1800s, they were moved onto reservations and allotments that would later be consolidated into small track of what was left of wetlands located in only the harshest areas of the terrain. The indigenous people in these regions have watched generations of abuse to the land, and the people, all people. They have begun shouting out the final warnings of what this behavior, this psychological illness we continue to develop will reap.
Water is life, and wetlands keep water clean and available for us and the rest of ecology. Where wetlands are drained, wells dry up and land looses its abundant fertility. The deep soils around the Mississippi River are now in The Gulf of Mexico stewing in “the dead zone” created by the synthetic chemical we now inflict on barren earth to perpetuate vegetative growth. This is utter madness- and we’re still implementing these “methods” around the world. Climate change will tip the scales along all coastal lowlands, eventually flooding the marshes and creating shallow seas once more, but the pollutants in water, especially those being pumped by the fossil fuel leviathan into what’s left of clean drinking water will be our final undoing. Bottled water through energy intense reverse osmosis will only get us so far, and only a wealthy, privileged few will afford these luxuries. Right now, the vast majority of people in The US are drinking contaminated water in some form; if not from your city district, some food product that used contaminated water in making your meal. Water quality is imperative to human survival, and here’s a great theses on the subject if you want more data (skip to “Water Quality” section for summery).
Through this nightmare of human devastation, wetlands persist in cleaning, cultivating, and replenishing our water systems as best they can. They remain targets of industry and development because people are not instilled with a sense of connection to these boggy places, and that’s starting to change, but not as quickly as industry continues to develop. By the time colonial expansion established on The West Cost in the early 1900s, industry had logged, delineated, dammed, channeled, and filled in what they could for access to commercial profit. Today, a west once manipulated to bring water into deserts for orchards, cotton, and dairy farms, is now facing 1200 years of drought and the loss of endless productive energy. We’ve drained the last of our wilderness to suit a few suits and removed any chance in this lifetime for recovery. What are we leaving the future generations? There is not another golden untouched wonder out there to colonize- even interstellar is reserved for the rich, and the “space-scape” is very cold and dark.
Speaking of wetlands, most space launch pads are build on and around wetlands. Even while excitedly watching the launch of the new Webb Space Telescope, I could not help but feel deep sadness for the jungle marsh and its panicked birds circling up from the massive explosion at lift off. Man’s continued assumption that his actions will not create consequences- that matter cuts deep into the misguided subjugation of nature for human advancement. It is in that very destructive pattern that we digress from our higher selves and realized capability in restoring and tending the land we rely on to survive. There are many voices raised in support of knowledgeable advancement through restoration, education, and inclusion. It’s the higher self aspiration we could all be working towards if the mind could possibly let go a few hundred years of disconnect by reconnecting to place. We’re spending so much energy launching ourselves away from Earth now, and this exploration does play a vital role in our inventive nature. The monetary value of our world should not dictate progress, instead, let our care and repair of that world and its living body elicit real success for our species- but not excluding all others.
Next time you have a chance, take a moment to find and know a wetland near you. This could be something as urban as a cement channel with seasonal rain flow, or as wild as The Waddenzee. A challenge for more developed regions, is mapping where wetland used to be, and going from there. Even having the memory of a wetland in your mind helps redraw mindset, bringing you back into a clear picture of what our environment could and should look like. Imagine if we could accept coastal flooding and move ourselves back from the flood zone to accommodate marsh buffers? These actions will be enacted by Mother Nature, but humans could protect urban development form future tidal chaos. It may sound like a financial nightmare of endless challenges, but as sea levels rise, trying to hold back the ocean will become impossible. Where wetlands are still thriving, we can utilize the intact examples to further our understanding of water filtration and restoration. We’re going to need to reinstate a lot of wetlands in our world to support potable water. When the sea levels continue to creep in on the coasts, salinization will happen in the water table. Inland regions where we’re currently fracking away at the crust and pumping chemical poisons into our ground water, will have destroyed what’s left of clean water.
I’d like to bring us back into the big picture- water, and let’s think about drinking water- which includes water in our food crops we also “drink” when swallowing the vegetation and animal flesh full of water. Above you’ll see California, with a focus on southern San Juaquine Valley. It’s one of two major agricultural areas producing the vast majority of food crops you get in nation wide grocery chains like Whole Foods and Cosco. This breadbasket is lined with a toxic necklace of fracking wells. Take time to look closely at satellite maps to fully comprehend how total this devastation of the entire watershed must be. Everything I’ve highlighted in yellow below is a web of fracking wells like the ones above- it’s mind boggling, and even more so when you stretch the map imagery into surrounding western states like Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and even New Mexico (to name a few), and find similar mass drilling. Inland aquifers will be no less toxic than salt water on the coasts, and by the time our bureaucracy moves to address the violation, the damage is done. If fracking in our drinking water does not move you, check out Teflon.
We’re moving to replace lead pipes while the water scheduled to flow through them carries the same kind of chemical threats. It’s hard to avoid noting how many private global companies are already well aware of the loss of clean drinking water in the way they are investing in control over public water supplies. The United States has some strict water rights, but then again, free market capitalism makes a lot of water available on the open market. Just ask these local residence in Northern California. Companies like Nestle and Coca-cola are making water a profit margin instead of a fundamental human right. The treatment of land and water now has been shaped by a few centuries of abuse towards the natural world which is now coming back to haunt mankind as a whole, no matter how much buying power can be flexed.
Back in our little town, far from fracking, but close to human development, The Snoqualmie River flexes her own current with flooding. The valley fills up faster these days, because of so much hillside runoff and forest clearing. Industry is backed up to the edge of flooded banks, and plastic bottles litter the river’s edge. Still, strong waters surge forward in a race to The Salish Sea. Sediment clouds the water as wave trains wash over sandy banks and into the farmer’s field. This floodwater is considered unsafe for crops. Our own larger organic farm in The Snoqualmie Valley says:
“Is food grown in a floodplain safe?
Yes. All food for sale in Oxbow’s Farm Stand is WSDA Certified Organic and was not impacted by flooding. We are prohibited by law from selling food that has come into contact with floodwater.”(site)
Why can this organic farm not sell crops exposed to flood waters? Because of pollution runoff from our development sprawl- in a nut shell. NOAA talks more extensively about this problem HERE. Part of the reason EEC is up in the hills- besides the actual flooding, is the build up of toxins in the soil from runoff. We’re up here above that floodplain to reforest the hills, remove polluted up stream activity, and eventually return a much needed sponge to the watershed to hold water and slowly filter it into the streams and rivers below, while replenishing much needed aquifers for safe drinking. Western Washington seems to have gotten the memo on protecting wetlands, better late than never. In the conservation world, wetlands are still seen as barriers, though such boundaries of liquid value make our survival possible, they are setbacks, hindering development- which should be seen as a good thing, yet still dwells in the human psyche as limitations. It is these limitations we humans should embrace to keep ourselves hydrated and alive.