BBQGuys® Earth Day PSA: How Wetlands Protect Our Cities
It’s been well documented that America’s wetlands are in danger — but did you know their plight means our cities could be at risk, too?
Wetlands serve as natural barriers against destructive storms, making their preservation and restoration crucial for densely populated areas left increasingly vulnerable as coastal erosion worsens. Nowhere is this issue more pressing than in BBQGuys’ home state of Louisiana, which has experienced the overwhelming majority of America’s wetland losses while also sustaining frequent hurricane activity year after year.
As part of our corporate sustainability strategy, BBQGuys has vowed to raise awareness about the vital role wetlands play nationwide when natural disasters strike. We spoke with Kellyn LaCour-Conant, Restorations Program Director for our friends at the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, to better understand the wetlands that are so quietly integral to our safety.
“What makes wetlands especially great storm buffers isn't just that there's land providing a physical barrier, it's their ability to hold and release water,” LaCour-Conant says. “The physical buffering of wind and waves is obviously important as well, but wetlands act as natural rain barrels, providing inundation-adapted habitat where water can pool during major precipitation events.”
Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency describes wetlands as “natural sponges” that soak up water and slowly release it over time. According to the CRCL, about 2.7 miles of wetlands can absorb 1 foot of storm surge — potentially the difference between life and death in flood events.
“Even in ‘milder’ hurricanes or storms, flood risks can be more widespread and destructive than wind or wave damage alone,” Lacour-Conant says. “So, because wetlands are the in-between of terrestrial and marine geography, they're specially adapted for dynamic hydrology.”
Yet these sedimentary saviors are rapidly vanishing, victim to both natural processes and urban development. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands estimates that 64% of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed since the 1900s.
For Louisianans, wetland loss occurs at an easy-to-remember rate: a football field every 100 minutes. In fact, a 2017 U.S. Geological Survey report concluded that “Louisiana currently experiences greater coastal wetland loss than all other states in the contiguous United States combined.” The CRCL, meanwhile, estimates that more than 1,500 square miles of coastal Louisiana have eroded in the past 50 years alone; at the current pace, another 1,000 square miles may be gone as soon as 2050.
As dire as the situation is in Louisiana, it’s just a piece of the wetland crisis facing our nation and world.
“All coastal areas benefit from wetland buffering in some way, but (Louisiana’s) neighboring Gulf and Atlantic coastal states and islands like Puerto Rico face very similar hurricane risks,” LaCour-Conant says. “Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Sandy just in the past decade come to mind, all having major impacts. There are many great reef, marsh, mangrove, and other wetland restoration efforts ongoing in these areas. Alaska also has more wetland acreage than even Louisiana and faces similar sea-level risks that threaten subsistence fisheries and the forced relocation of marginalized communities.”
Hurricane Sandy is particularly notable not only for bringing hurricane-force winds to the Northeastern U.S. — thereby highlighting the national scope of our wetland crisis — but also because it provided great insight into wetland effectiveness. According to a study published in Scientific Reports, wetlands and marshes across 12 coastal states from Maine to North Carolina prevented more than $625 million in property damage during the 2012 storm.
Indeed, economic impacts of storms undeterred by wetland buffers could be catastrophic, especially in Louisiana. The CRCL notes that billions of dollars in oil and gas infrastructure will be left defenseless in open water should the state’s wetlands and barrier islands continue to disappear. Yet with almost 25% of the oil and gas consumed by Americans traveling through Louisiana’s wetlands, this regional issue has far-reaching consequences.
Further inland, up to 155 miles of waterways may be left exposed to the full brunt of storm effects within the next 50 years, according to the CRCL. Hurricanes will then have a chance to wreak greater havoc on major port cities, disrupting shipping throughout the country.
Then there are the numerous wildlife species that call the wetlands home. Vanishing fish, bird, and invertebrate habitats will upend an entire ecosystem and displace huge portions of local wildlife, which in turn threatens Louisiana’s robust commercial fishing industry and status as a Sportsman’s Paradise.
The CRCL sums up the many woes of America’s wilting wetlands as follows: “Hurricane protection supplied by coastal wetlands alone has been estimated at over $23 billion dollars for the U.S.”
We’ll say that again: $23 billion. Yes, that’s “billion,” with a “B.”
So, what can we do to ensure our indispensable wetlands remain in place to shield our homes, cities, and infrastructure from life-threatening storms?
Says LaCour-Contant: “Any coastal resident can support wetland conservation and recovery by donating to or volunteering with local coastal organizations (like CRCL!), promoting green infrastructure like living shorelines and bioswales, supporting legislation that can help fund wetland restoration, patronizing businesses that practice good environmental and community stewardship, and spreading the good word about wetlands!”
To donate, volunteer, or learn more about the importance of wetlands, please visit crcl.org.