Nontidal wetlands get short shrift

ON THE BAY

January 21, 1995|By TOM HORTON

BRIDGEVILLE, DEL. — What would the world be, once bereft,

of wet and of wildness? Let them be left.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins,

Poems, No. 56

BRIDGEVILLE, Del. -- Along a wooded stream off busy U.S. 13, some major digging equipment of the local farm conservation district is rearranging the scenery in pickup truck-sized bites.

At first glance, this appears to be business as usual: work on the drainage system that has enabled farming across the low, flat Delmarva Peninsula for centuries and straightened thousands of miles of streams, now more akin to ditches.

In fact, the digging is part of a small but significant start on something very hopeful -- for the Nanticoke River, into which this stream flows, and for Chesapeake Bay, into which large parts of Delaware and five other states drain.

Workers from the Sussex Conservation District, along with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are here not to dry land out, but to plug drainage pipes and raise water tables.

For the conservation district, it represents not just physical reversal of a drainage, but changed thinking about the very concept of flowing water. This is something that needs widespread rethinking. We mostly conceive "flow" as a straightforward progression: mountains to ocean, headwaters to mouth; water runs downhill.

Naturally, water's way is more complicated than that -- and beautifully so.

Where the land's shapes and soils bid it linger, meander and pool, cause it seasonally to saturate the subsurface, to alternately pond and dry, flood and trickle, the consequences of water can be extraordinary. Those effects create an array of unique habitats that nurture everything from orchids to salamanders to wood ducks, and bog turtles to migrant songbirds; waterways also filter polluted runoff, recharge drinking water aquifers and sponge up floods and silt.

All this we lump for legal purposes under the unfortunate rubric of "nontidal wetlands."

It seems as if parts of the environment we label "non" -- nongame species, nonpoint source pollution -- almost by definition get short shrift. For example, losses have slowed dramatically among the bay watershed's 200,000 acres of classic coastal salt marsh and other tidal wetlands.

But among the larger category of nontidal, covering eight times as much territory, thousands of acres a year still are eliminated.

It happens despite state and federal policies of "no net loss." It happens because of legal loopholes, exemptions for agriculture and forestry and illegal destruction that overworked regulators simply don't catch.

For those reasons and more, we ought to promote underfunded, understaffed programs like Partners for Wildlife, through which the Annapolis office of the Fish and Wildlife Service is about to add 15 acres of nontidal wetlands to the Nanticoke River headwaters here.

They are doing it cheaply, without regulation, with the blessing of local farmers and the co-operation of Delaware agricultural and natural resources agencies. Similar projects across the Eastern Shore, says Laura Mitchell, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, have the potential to add hundreds, and probably thousands, more wetland acres to reverse the tide of losses.

This parcel is part of a farm that was donated to The Nature Conservancy. Ms. Mitchell and Eric Buehl, of the conservation district, explain that, like hundreds of thousands of acres on the Peninsula, it was a non-tidal wetland in pre-drainage days.

To restore it, a pipe that carries runoff into the Nanticoke branch will be blocked, and an old irrigation pond that lowered the water table will be reconfigured to saturate the subsurface soil.

They note that healthy nontidal wetlands need not have visible, surface water, a fact that makes them all the more difficult to identify and protect.

The Partners for Wildlife program, which has a staff of two and a budget in the low tens of thousands of dollars, will kick in $4,500, with the conservation district providing labor and equipment.

The cost -- about $300 an acre -- is extremely low compared with "mitigation" projects, where wetlands must be built from scratch as required replacements for ones eliminated by a road or development.

A recent University of Maryland study looked at 1,000 wetlands restorations nationwide and found that per-acre costs averaged $18,000 to $80,000 an acre, depending on the type of wetland.

The only inexpensive category was converting drained farmland back to its original state, at an average cost of $1,000 an acre.

Ms. Mitchell says Partners for Wildlife, often in conjunction with farmers who have marginal land they no longer work, converted 100 acres in Maryland and Delaware last year and will shoot for another 200 in fiscal 1995.

"I think the potential here on the Shore is in the thousands," she says.

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