Posted by: Audrey Carson | March 7, 2012

When things go well

Half-mile Boardwalk at the Grand Bay Wetland Education Center

If you do a Googe News search of “wetlands” (not that I’ve done this every day…) you’ll come up with many doom and gloom stories. Some will be about funding (yay!) for a nearly dying ecosystem (boo.) and others may be abut invasive species found in wetlands or another company destroying one without a permit.

A bright spot for wetlands can be found in southeast Georgia where nearly 18,000 acres of natural and maintained wetlands flourish, providing several different organizations with recreational and functional purposes. These wetlands may be so healthy because six different organizations that own the lands have a stake in protecting them, including: Moody Air Force Base; Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Nature Conservancy.

Asian climbing fern is climbing on your wetlands.

The Air Force base in particular is careful about how their activities impact the wetland. Each winter, they perform controlled burns on the wetlands to reduce overgrowing vegetation and control invasive species such as the Asian climbing fern.

It’s also a popular place for fishing, as you could imagine. This wetland complex is unique in that – well, first of all, it’s HUGE, and secondly, it contains both deep and shallow water areas. The deep water areas are maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia DNR for fishing areas.

The state is also particularly proud of the Grand Bay Wetland Education Center – and it absolutely should be. According to Jones Center hydrologist Woody Hicks, the center is booked EVERY SCHOOL DAY for  classes to come through and learn about the wildlife in the wetlands. The center offers a half-mile boardwalk that crosses over some of the wetland area, a 54-foot tower (what kid wouldn’t love to be in a tower – even if it’s over a marsh?) and the awesome education center.

It’s just refreshing to know that there are happy endings and beginnings and middles to some wetland stories. Maybe the solution to wetland preservation is an arsenal of conservation groups – or people who just like fishing and realize that they need insects, good water and plants to keep those fish swimming.

Posted by: Audrey Carson | March 6, 2012

Need protection? Hold still

Certainly, we are familiar with nature preserves and parks that are protected under the government. Once this protection is established, the responsibilities of government officials and employees is to protect the defined area.

Problems arise when that “defined area” doesn’t… “stay.”

Because of changing ocean conditions attributed to climate change, some species in marine protected areas (MPAs) have relocated to other areas. Some have shifted as much as three kilometers in the past 50 years, and researchers predict that some MPAs could move 300 more kilometers in the next 50 years. This means scientists may need to assess a new, more flexible, distribution of MPAs. Technological advances in marine science presented at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting will allow improved ocean modeling and observation to view the changes associated with shifted MPAs so solutions can be implemented.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association designates Marine Protected Areas as places that need widespread, permanent protection and observation. There are nearly 1,600 MPAs which include sanctuaries, parks, preserves or natural areas.

One of the ideas presented at the AAAS conference is to use shifting GPS coordinates based on tracking technology on marine species to create mobile marine protected areas.

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 28, 2012

Climate change gets a break

Though the hot topic in water level news has centered around climate change increasing sea levels, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and McGill University believe we should look to ourselves for the more pressing issue. Their research focused on coastal aquifers which are in danger of drying up due to human activity in the form of pumping for wells, domestic use and agricultural use. Their study that analyzed 1,400 coastal watersheds explained that rising sea level does not affect these aquifers much.

Though most aquifers are freshwater aquifers that can be replenished by rain and melting snow when they are tapped, coastal aquifers fill with saltwater when humans pull too much freshwater from them. Many of the one billion people who live on or near a coast depend on ground water.

The NASA video above describes how the changes in groundwater is affecting food availability, focusing on water-hungry farms in India. NASA satellite images are used to get a view of the changes going on in the water cycle.

Read more at the University of Saskatchewan Campus News

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 27, 2012

Lights… Camera… Wetland?

Illustration of what the Los Angeles Wetland Park will look like

At some point during the glamor and glitz of Hollywood, a wetland both existed and ceased to exist.

Though it may be the last place one would expect a wetland, South Los Angeles now has one again. The city of Los Angeles took three years and about $26 million to flip a bus parking lot into a nine-acre wetland park including paths and boardwalks to encourage local visitors. The park was initially constructed to help the city meet pollution standards set by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. The wetland functions partly as a storm water filter, processing 630,000 gallons daily. Bacteria in the pools of water in the wetland break down pollutants before the water enters the Los Angeles River to be carried to the ocean.

An education center and museum are also slated to be part of the wetland park.


For a detailed project summary, design reports and more information on the Los Angeles Watershed, check out the City of Los Angeles’s Stormwater Program website

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 25, 2012

Wetland whoopsies: big mistakes benefit wetlands

In the grand scheme of things, it seems that good usually triumphs over evil. The bad guy gets caught. Wetlands end up in the hands of the right people. At least, in these two cases below they do.

Unlawful Dredging in Illinois

After permitting filling and dredging work in a wetland on his property five years ago, an Illinois man is now turning the property over to more responsible owners. For violating the Clean Water Act, a federal judge ordered that Michael Trinski deed the 104 acres of wetland property to a local water management agency and pay a $15,000 civil penalty.  The agency ensures that the property will stay open and accessible. They have plans to turn the land into green space for area residents to enjoy.

Michael Hogan, the man who did the filling and dredging on the property, was ordered to provide the agency with 80 hours of labor on the land he damaged.

Mowing Mishap in Newport News

The city of Newport News, Va. recently purchased 37 acres of land that include a local wetland the city erroneously mowed less than two years ago. The $950,000 purchase will facilitate a new road that will connect two major boulevards, but this will only use 5 acres of the land. The city may not have purchased the remainder of the land if the mowing mistake had not occurred.

In summer of 2010, the city responded to a high weed complaint and had local inmates mow the land. However, they later discovered that they mowed over a protected wetland. The city then became responsible for monitoring the wetlands on the property which could have cost them at least $7,000 a year for several years. City Engineer Everett Skipper said that they city may have bought the remainder of the property anyway to expand its environmental “green space” project.

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 22, 2012

Louisiana Floating Islands restore wetlands and culture

This has been a project particularly close to my heart.

America’s Wetland Foundation teamed up with a community of Native Americans and local school system to not only restore a coast, but actually build their own marshes. The “floating islands” are made from recycled water bottles and native plants, creating a buffer and eventually marshes that will blend in to Louisiana’s coastline. Over 300 volunteers came out to create and launch these islands.


Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 19, 2012

New interntional plan balances lake and wetland water

When the International Joint Comission, a group founded to manage shared U.S. and Canadian waters, approved a final regulation plan for Lake Ontario’s overflowing water levels in 1963, they had good intentions. After record-breaking floods in the 1950’s, the IJC made the unrealistic assessment that they could regulate the lake’s water levels within a four-foot range. Suddenly, the area became a development hotspot and real estate, shipping and recreation markets began to grow, affecting lake and river levels. This also affected wetland water levels for decades, affecting plant diversity and ecosystem balance.

Wetlands are hardy, self-regulating ecosystems that work with seasonal variations in rainfall to keep its plants properly satiated. However, strangely enough, the plan to regulate Lake Ontario threw its surrounding wetlands off. They were too wet during dry seasons and parched in wet seasons.

The International Joint Commission finally realized this and will soon release a new plan that considers the needs of the wetlands as well as hydropower and shipping purposes for which the original plan was instated.

According to the IJC website, the current plan is “based on water conditions of the last century, has no regard for environmental consequences and no process for adapting to possible future challenges such as bigger storms, more severe droughts and increasing effects of climate change.” Currently, the wetlands near Lake Ontario are overrun with cattails that outcompete other vegetation that is not receiving the right amount of water in each season. Bird and fish populations are in decline and the area also has problems related to run-off water quality. Healthier wetlands that are hopefully to come after the new plan should mitigate these current problems.

Healthier wetlands also mean a healthier lake and river, what the IJC originally intended in their original plan. Because they act as natural filtration systems, the wetlands can help filter runoff water from the lake.

Comments on the plan sent before June 15 will be considered in IJC’s draft. E-mail them to or mailed to the following address: International Joint Commission, U.S. Section, 2000 L Street, NW, Suite #615, Washington, DC 20440.

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 15, 2012

Glowing Florida estuary

Why didn’t we think of this before?! To measure pollution in estuaries (or anywhere), all we had to do was put a light on it. Conveniently, that light is contained in the form of a glowing sea creature.

No, not this guy. Image from

Marine biologist Edith Widder has studied bioluminescence in sea animals for years. Many ocean creatures depend on the trait for survival – up to 90 percent of ocean creatures exhibit the trait. Widder has harnessed bioluminescent bacteria to indicate pollution levels in a Florida estuary, which could promote survival of even more native species.

Indian River Lagoon stretches for 156 miles down Florida’s east coast, and is one of North America’s most diverse estuaries with about 4,200 plant and animal species. It is also one of the most threatened. Widder can detect how much pollution is in the water by mixing sediment from the estuary with the glowing bacteria, then using a photometer to measure how much the light dims as toxic chemicals kill the bacteria. Using this method to trace chemicals and real-time data sensors to record current and flow, researchers can find the sources of estuary pollution. Widder also developed an Eye-in-the-Sea camera that uses an red light that sea creatures can’t see to take video of the ocean floor and discover new species. With all this newfangled technology, Widder and her team have identified pollution hot spots in the estuary and are now working on ways to reduce it.

According to the New York Times, Widder’s methods are faster and more cost efficient than sending water and sediments samples to be analyzed in a lab.

Widder established the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA) in 2005 to develop innovative technologies that will advance ocean conservation.

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 8, 2012

Manmade wetlands aren’t up to snuff

There’s nothing like the real thing.

Though wetland restoration and mitigation is a fairly recent endeavor, it seems that even manmade wetlands from a century ago do not compare to their natural counterparts.

A study by a University of California at Berkeley postdoctoral fellow shows that, though well intentioned, wetlands restored through the wetland mitigation programs almost never achieve the quality of a natural wetland, even after 100 years. David Moreno-Mateos and his colleagues found that restored wetlands in their study contained 23 percent less carbon, a 26 percent reduction in native plant variety and were 25 percent less productive than native wetlands on average.

They also found that the size of the wetland and temperature affect recovery rate. Wetlands less than 250 acres in area and those in cold regions were even slower to recover than their larger, warmer counterparts. The impact of weakly restored wetlands can be felt in carbon storage. When a wetland is destroyed, the disturbance releases carbon into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Manmade wetlands could take hundreds of years to accumulate the lost carbon. Moreno-Mateos’ next study will assess whether invasive plants or slowly established native plants impact carbon accumulation.

Moreno Mateos suggests a simply worded solution for slow wetland recovery.

“To prevent this, preserve the wetland, don’t degrade the wetland,” he said.

In attempting to close the gap between man and mother nature, scientists are beginning to monitor soil oxygen and saturation to determine the production levels of the manmade wetlands and what improvements seem to be working. This requires long-term monitoring using equipment such as different water quality parameter probes, data loggers and equipment to transmit data to a remote computer.

Posted by: Audrey Carson | February 6, 2012

Oysters: estuary cash crop

Picking oysters by hand at low tide, Willapa Bay, Washington, October 1969. from NOAA Fisheries collection

Anyone who has ever been to a raw bar knows that oysters come by the dozen. To meet the demand of consumers during months with an “r” in the name (the commonly known “safe” months to consume the shelled seafood), oyster farms speed the rate of oyster maturation to produce them en masse.

Conveniently, oysters love the brackish waters of estuaries. This makes oyster farming easily accessible from the land and harvesting fairly safe (relatively – have you seen The Deadliest Catch?) Some say it could also be a sustainable practice that could possibly improve the health of estuaries. Just as an agriculturist monitors his soil, oyster farmers must keep a close eye on water quality, avoiding high nutrient levels and algal blooms. Such is the case in the Etel River off the western coast of France.

This past July, water quality management groups PONSEL and SAUR launched two buoys with water quality sensors in the Etel River, known for its oyster farming. Agricultural runoff infiltrates the river with nitrates and industrial activity and shipwrecks near the Etel River can also pollute the water. Previously, a bacteriological analysis determined if water was safe for oyster cultivation. However, this process was time consuming as it required water samples to be taken to a lab and time for results to process. As the old saying goes, time is money. In the cause of Etel River oyster farming, if bacteria results showed poor water quality, the oysters could not be sold until it improved. In some cases, it could be days before another test was completed. To keep oyster sales afloat and tourists in the water, SAUR wanted to find a correlation between physical-chemical parameters and bacteriologic parameters. If physical and chemical parameters were out of a healthy range when bacteriological parameters were, data from the sensors could show when parameters were out of range so oyster farming could return to regular business more quickly than before.

Though the intention is to keep the water healthy to keep a business afloat (pun intended), this also helps the entire estuary ecosystem.

Oysters themselves can act as filtration systems by consuming algae and sediments that plague estuaries. Some environmental advocates make a case for oysters inhibiting preservation of estuaries rather than conservation.

An estuary designated as a potential wilderness in northern California could come short of gaining the nation’s highest level of protection because of a local oyster farm. The Drakes Estero estuary is slated to gain full wilderness status in 2012, provided that oyster farming in the area ceased after the Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s lease ended next year, according to the Phillip Burton Wilderness Act of 1976.

The oyster company has been in operation for over 70 years in the estuary and claims that its practices are sustainable and environmentally friendly. The National Park Service issued a draft environmental impact statement in September that suggested the oyster farm close after its lease is up. However, the Secretary of the Interior could grant the farm a special-use permit to extend the operation for 10 more years.

While some environmental advocates argue that the company’s use of nonnative oysters could harm the Drakes Estero ecosystems, scientists contest that oysters could clean the water and provide environmental benefits to the area.

So the debate continues. Researchers at the University of Southern California say that, no matter how you slice it, aquaculture could be the most sustainable, cost-efficient solution to a worldwide food shortage and land degradation due to agriculture.

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