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Special to The Wakulla News
Wetlands and the Code Enforcement Board have been in the news lately, which is a good reason to remind people why Wakulla County adopted a wetland ordinance. The wetlands of Wakulla County have stood since the melting of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Yet some people say, “There’s plenty of wetlands on refuge and national forest lands, why not develop the rest?
Ask the birds, including the wood ducks that forage in the wooded ponds, and shallow, clear underwater grassy meadows and lily pads. They don’t like dredged out catfish ponds. The birds that collect around natural wetlands give us pleasure, few things can lift the spirit or rival the beauty and magnificence of a Great Blue Heron rising up from the marshes with its wings outstretched. Yet as development encroaches on their feeding grounds, it’s becoming harder for these creatures to find food. To a Great Blue Heron in search of a frog or crawfish, there are no legal boundaries; it doesn’t know whether a wetland is public or privately owned or whether humans label it isolated or connected. Definitions such “isolated” or a “connected” wetlands mean nothing to it. To a mullet foraging among the marsh grass on an incoming tide, there is no such thing as “mean high water.” These are legal definitions devised by man, an attempt at a political compromise between developers and environmentalists. They have no ecological meaning whatsoever.
Standing there with endless patience, the herons and egrets stalk the rivers, the lakes, the swamps and bogs, waiting for a fish to swirl. The reeds, lily pads, St. Johns Wart bushes. sawgrass and cattails are their home. They know that life abounds in the low swampy places that we call “wetlands” with their mucky wet “hydric” soils. Multitudes of aquatic insects, grass shrimp and other crustaceans, mosquito fish and tadpoles abound there. Flocks of woodstorks sweep the water and mud with their large bills until they feel something alive and a thousandth of a second, grab it with a reflective snap.
Here in the eternal food chain, the big prey upon the little: the tiny mosquito fish picks at the decaying vegetation, delicately eating the nearly microscopic water mites and nematodes, until a sunfish, bream or crappie rushes in and grabs one. Then down stabs the beak of the dazzling white snowy egret, who has been standing in the reeds, perched above the shallows with endless patience waiting for the right moment. In the endless cycle of life and death, a marsh hawk swoops down and catches a water snake to feed its young, an eagle grabs the rabbit, or an alligator scores a pond turtle.
And yes, there are mosquitoes that live in wetlands, that make us part of the food chain. But that’s part of living in the country and on the coast.
Sometimes, during periods of drought, wetlands become dry lands, and tiny creatures dig down into the mud, go into torpid sleep, die or move on. Alligators, frogs and turtles move from one low puddle to another seeking water. Some wetlands are ephemeral low spots, seemingly barren of life that evaporate completely, yet they may be the home to endangered flat woods salamanders. They require areas that dry out, keep fish populations from building up and eating their eggs.
When the rains come, the bogs, marshes, depressions even the high ground pinewoods turn into what surveyors call “swamp and overflow lands.”
When it floods all wetlands are connected and fish swim through the forests, and frogs which were silenced by the drought, chirp and grunt, and fill the night with music. The dark enriched tannin stained waters flow through the wiregrass and palmetto into creeks then to the rivers. Rivers of tannin tea flow out to the Gulf of Mexico carrying dissolved and digested vegetation from uplands which stimulates the growth of sea grass. Miles out at sea, the swamp waters cause plankton to flourish and give us delicious seafood to eat. Untold trillions of tiny larval fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters derive benefit from wetlands.
But when dump trucks pile dirt on them and turn them into permanent dry land or dig them out into sterile deep lakes where sunlight cannot penetrate the bottoms,the eternal life cycle is diminished. Ditching and draining shallow wetlands destroys their numerous functions. They lose their ability to retain stormwater as life disappears. Wetlands remove excess nutrients and retain stormwater, keeping adjacent lands, roads and houses from flooding. Their ability to cleanse and filter stormwater run off disappears when wetlands disappear. Regardless of their size, or their ownership, whether they are classed as wetlands, bogs and marshes, isolated or not, they all act like livers and kidneys removing pollutants and heavy metals. They affect the micro-climate, preventing the air from becoming too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. To function properly, wetlands also need a buffer, a forest or wooded area around their edge, which act as a transition from dry land to wetland. The greater the size, the better the level of protection. When people destroy wetlands, the quality of life is diminished for everyone who lives here. The birds lose their food, the ability of the land to harmlessly absorb flooding is lost, the filtering of pollutants out of the water is reduced, and the serenity and peace of mind that wading birds in scenic wetlands give us goes with them. The filtering abilities that protect the larval fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters that move into our waters diminishes, and year after year the rich protein basket that has fed us for so many generations, declines. That is why the Wakulla County Commission, much to my surprise, voted to have a wetlands protection ordinance several years ago.
The fines are miniscule, a couple of hundred dollars, but it’s a start. Former Representative Will Kendrick gutted the state’s freshwater wetland bill, hence any protection that our county gives is better than nothing. Enforcement by Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation is shoddy in spite of the rhetoric of how wonderful they are. We need our wetlands protected whether some people like it or not.
Jack Rudloe writes from