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Drought: When wetlands aren't wet

Wetlands such as this one near Scofield have their own ecosystem.

Sun Advocate publisher

(Editors note: Based on the weather this winter, if things don't change, the local area will be experiencing a drought. This is the fourth in a series of articles examining droughts, water use, water storage/sources, personal water footprints and what the impacts of a prolonged drought has done in the past and can do to the eastern Utah in the future).

"What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.". Victor Hugo

Most people marvel at the beautiful flowers in a forest meadow, the tall pines that seem to scratch the blue sky above or the Aspen trees in gnarled groves with their bright colors in the fall.

Few, however, think about how important the wetlands that occur in a forest are to the health of the entire realm of trees and meadows.

"Wetlands are so fragile and can disappear in a drought situation," said Jan Curtis-Tollestrup, the hydrologist for the Manti La Sal National Forest. "Once gone they cannot be replaced."

While most people don't think of wetlands as part of the forest, the Manti La Sal National Forest's wetlands have some unique values. They are generally not something someone would want in their yard, but they are part of the ecological system of the forest, an integral part which has an impact on the rest of the plants and animals that no one completely understands.

Not many years ago wet lands were considered wastelands in many places. People called them swamps, bogs, marshes or sloughs and in many places they were drained. Since that time scientists and conservationists have come to realize the value of these muddy, soft life producing areas.

Inland wetlands found in the United States fall into five broad categories-marshes, swamps, bogs, vernal pools and fens. Marshes are wetlands dominated by soft-stemmed vegetation, while swamps have mostly woody plants. Bogs are freshwater wetlands, often formed in old glacial lakes, characterized by spongy peat deposits, evergreen trees and shrubs, and a floor covered by a thick carpet of moss. Fens are freshwater peat-forming wetlands covered mostly by grasses, sedges, reeds, and wildflowers. Vernal pools are wetlands not subject to permanent inundation and having clearly hydric soils.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that wetlands are found from the tundra to the tropics, and on every continent except Antarctica. For regulatory purposes under the Clean Water Act, the term wetlands means "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions."

In a draft report that will be coming out from the Manti La Sal National Forest soon, they are considered a groundwater dependent ecosystem. A wetland is described there as "Communities of plants, animals, and other organisms whose extent and life processes are dependent on access to or the discharge of groundwater."

That groundwater that feeds life into wetlands in the forest just doesn't appear from nowhere; it comes from the rains and snowfall that come down on the forest. If that water doesn't show up as it normally does, things can change.

"Wetlands are dependent on a number of factors including geology," said Curtis-Tollestrup. "A single year of drought is one thing, but getting into a prolonged drought could cause them to dry up could make it so they will never come back."

Wetlands are that unique. A combination of special soils, special hydrology and hydric vegetation that often exists only in that area of the forest.

Wetlands in some ways are their very own ecosystem. Unlike trees that often come back after a fire or even a prolonged drought, there is really no way for a wetland to return to its former state if it gets destroyed.

Often people think of a wetland, especially small ones ,as isolated. But wetlands can be strung together by a small stream that starts as ground water but then flows from one place to another creating wetlands along the way. Water that creates wetlands doesn't necessarily all need to be from ground water, but many in the Manti La Sal are.

In a United Nations report in 2005 called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in which 1,000 scientists participated around the world, researchers said that the degradation of wetlands is greater than any other ecological system on earth. This degradation comes from a variety of factors, but human intrusion is one of the main reasons they are disappearing. Some of that degradation has been intentional (the draining of wetlands for development) while some comes as a result of other human activities such as some types of recreation.

While this year the water that is usually available in the mountains that houses the Manti La Sal National Forest will probably be less than hoped (unless things change), wetlands will be okay in the area.

But a prolonged drought, one that may extend from this year on for some time, could be a factor in the health of the forest in many ways, including the well being of those wetlands.

Sources: Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems (Manti La Sal National Forest study), the Environmental Protection Agency, The Encyclopedia of the Earth.

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