In 1997, on the east side of St. Paul, Minn., heavy construction
equipment roared into an abandoned shopping center built years before
on top of an old bogpart of the Mississippi River's watershedand
began knocking down concrete and tearing up blacktop. Later, workers
built a pond and school kids planted wildflowers. Eventually, cattails
took over drug dealer territory, and the blighted strip mall slowly
devolved into a pastoral wetland. As if playing a Joni Mitchell
song in reverse, the optimistic citizens of St. Paul had taken a
parking lot and put up a paradise.
And this, say some, is the future of flood control.
The St. Paul effort is one of many current ventures to restore
what once were wetlandsmarshes, bogs and similar areas, often
defined as land that is inundated by water at least twice a year.
Until recently, humans regarded wetlands as wastelands without value,
economic or otherwise. But in the 1960s, scientists began to conclude
that wetlands destruction had contributed to flooding problems and
also threatened water quality and survival of plant and wildlife
species. Restoring wetlands, they argued, could serve a number of
important functions simultaneously: flood control, water filtration,
aquifer recharging and habitat restoration. And as in St. Paul,
the advocates said, wetlands restoration could also create value
by eliminating eyesores and strengthening a communitypublic
goods not easily measured in dollars.
Over the past decade, as they've been promoted by environmentalists,
subsidized by government and endured by developers, wetlands restoration
programs have gained ground, despite recent setbacks including weakened
federal regulations and threats of funding cutbacks. The degree
to which they actually mitigate flooding remains unsettled, but
many observers believe that even if wetlands aren't the complete
flood control solution, their ancillary benefits may well justify
the effort and funds expended.
Wetlands might be considered little Edens these days, but in the
1800s, people called them swamps and viewed themaccuratelyas
a source of mosquitoes and disease. Water-laden lands were eliminated
as quickly as possible. Urban developers created level building
sites by trimming hilltops and filling in low-lying bogs. Farmers
seeking more tillable acres drained their potholes. Geologists estimate
that by the 1980s, wetland area in the United States had decreased
to 53 percent of what it had been in the 1780s.
In many Ninth District states depletion rates were higher. Wisconsin's
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates a loss of over half
the state's original wetlands. Minnesota eliminated about 11 million
wetland acres over the last century, leaving about 7.5 million,
nearly a 60 percent loss. "In the Red River Valley," said
Dexter Perkins, a geologist at the University of North Dakota in
Grand Forks, "we probably have 10 percent of our original wetlands
that are actually functioning the way they were before the white
man got here. It is astonishing."
This massive destruction of wetlands eliminated a natural pressure
relief valve for seasonal variations in river water levels, according
to hydrologists. Without the natural "sponge" effect of
wetlands, floodplains could no longer absorb sudden downpours and
rivers would overflow their banks. For this and other reasons, scientists
began to advocate wetlands restoration. In 1989, President George
Bush called for a "no net loss" wetlands policy which
mandated that any lands drained for development had to be replaced
with new wetland acreage elsewhere.
In addition, several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs encouraged
farmers to take lands out of production and restore them as wetlands.
The Wetlands Reserve Program has enrolled over 1 million acres nationally,
paying farmers for permanent or 30-year easements for wetlands on
their property. Ninth District states account for 129,934 of those
acres, ranging from 6,988 enrolled acres in North Dakota to 30,544
acres in Wisconsin.
In June 2001, the USDA announced a separate initiative, the Farmable
Wetlands Pilot Program, to pay farmers in six Midwestern states
to restore up to 500,000 acres of wetlands, including 100,000 acres
each in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and 25,000 acres
Some Ninth District states have taken independent measures to
protect and restore wetlands. Minnesota, for example, passed the
Wetland Conservation Act in 1991 to give local shape to the federal
"no net loss" mandate, and the Legislature has regularly
appropriated funds to match federal monies for wetlands restoration.
Wisconsin lawmakers passed a wetlands bill, effective August 2001,
which calls on the DNR to establish guidelines for compensation
when wetlands are developed.
But the wetlands restoration movement is not without
opposition. Urban development continues to impinge on wetlands and
farmers still seek good drainage.
In Pope County, Minn., for example, farmers are planning a 5.7-mile
drainage ditch at a cost of nearly half a million dollars, but the
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy has sued the county,
claiming the ditch will adversely affect wetlands and contribute
to flooding. "[Wetlands] help hold water on the land,"
said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with the center. "I have
a feeling that Montevideo and Granite Fallsboth of which are
downstream of this drainage projectwould prefer not to have
it drain off the land quite so quickly."
In August, a similar lawsuit prevented manufacturers from expanding
into wetlands in Trempealeau and Dunn counties in Wisconsin.
For a landownerand an economistwetlands restoration
raises difficult questions of value. Is an acre worth more in soybeans
or swamp grass? Society in general may give high value to a wetlandfor
its flood retention capacity, water cleansing ability or waterfowl
habitatbut the farmer or other landowner probably won't agree
to that use unless compensated. Negotiating that compensation has
often been a politically painful process as environmentalists, farmers,
developers and government officials argue over the worth of a given
acre of wetland.
"Wetlands aren't free," noted Steven Taff, an economist
at the University of Minnesota, who has advised the state Legislature
on wetland valuation. "It's not free to society to create them
or to keep them. To create a wetland, or to preserve it, [you have
to] buy outor take through zoningthe rights to do everything
else that might yield more money." For lands in remote areas,
such rights may be cheap, but acres elsewhere could return a crop,
or a housing development. "So you've got to pay for that right,"
And President George W. Bush seems less willing to do so. His
budget proposalslargely supported by Congresscut funding
to the Wetlands Reserve Program by $189 million. Other recent actions
contribute to the impression that wetlands restoration faces an
uphill battle. In August, the Army Corps of Engineers formally proposed
to weaken several wetlands regulations. The National Academy of
Sciences reported in June that government agencies and private developers
have failed to implement the "no net loss" wetlands policy.
And in January the Supreme Court ruled that wetlands not directly
connected to other water bodies aren't protected by Clean Water
Act regulations restricting their development.
But do they stop floods?
The key reason to save wetlands, say many advocates, is to preserve
their role in flood control. "The best way to protect families
from flooding is to protect wetlands and floodplains from development,"
said Brett Hulsey of the Sierra Club. "Wetlands act like sponges
to store floodwater, filter drinking water and provide homes for
fish and wildlife." Donald Hey, a hydrologist with the Wetlands
Initiative, estimates that restoration of half of the original wetlands
in the Upper Mississippi River basin would have soaked up much of
the 1993 Midwest flood.
But others aren't so sanguine. "If you're looking at a basinwide
type of a flood reduction measure, typically [wetlands restoration]
does not make that much difference," said David Loss, an engineer
in the Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul office. Wetland water storage
can reduce flooding immediately downstream, but effects on the broader
watershed are modest, he said. "So there is a place for [wetlands
restoration], but to say that it's going to be a cure-all, well,
it's dangerous to go down that path."
The bottom line: Hydrology is complex. In any given flood, wetlands
will absorb some water and diminish flood peaks, but they're more
likely to attenuate a serious flood than prevent it. Wetlands restoration
might also limit flood damage by keeping humans and their property
off the floodplain in the first place. Reasons enough to restore
Other bottom lines
Full economic justification for wetlands restoration, though, will
likely depend not on their flood control capacity alone, but on
the other roles wetlands serve. "One of the values of wetlands
is their ability to reduce flooding," observed economist Taff.
"But probably the bigger numbers associated with wetland values
are things like habitat, and possibly amenity values. What we found
in urban areas, [is that] people just like living near wetlands.
They'll pay extra. There's an economic value there." Indeed,
Wild Meadows, a new housing development in Medina, Minn., will charge
homeowners a $1,000 annual fee to fund an ecologist to maintain
200 acres of wetlands, woods and native prairie that will serve
as backdrop for the luxury homes, priced at $500,000 and up.
Wetlands' role as habitat for game fish and fowl provides prime
value for recreational interests, and the so-called rods and bullets
lobby has played a significant role in wetland conservation advocacy
at state and federal levels. The environmentalists' lawsuit against
Pope County's drainage ditch, in fact, is co-sponsored by the Minnesota
Waterfowl Association, a key proponent of the state's Wetland Conservation
Wetlands also play a significant role in purifying water and replenishing
aquifers, values that are hard-to-measure public goods. "These
ecosystem values are real," noted Ohio State University economists
William Mitsch and James Gosselink in a recent article, "but
their quantification is difficult and the benefits are generally
regional and less specific to individual land owners."
Ultimately, therefore, while wetlands will likely remain in the
arsenal of flood policy, their higher economic valueand the
fuller justification for their restorationmay in fact derive
not from their flood control benefits, but from their roles as water
purifiers, wildlife habitats or urban amenities for people who,
like those in St. Paul, would rather look at frogs than shopping