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Appreciating Colorado's Wetlands

Release Date: 05/08/2006
Contact Information: Richard Mylott, EPA Region 8, (303) 312-6654

{05/08/2006} Denver, Colo. -- May is American Wetlands Month, a few weeks in late spring when Americans celebrate the ways wetlands enrich our environment. Wetlands are among the most valuable of our natural resources. They are transition zones where land, water, nutrients and the energy of the sun interact to produce highly productive ecosystems. Wetlands are diverse -- they may be classic cattail areas with a few feet of standing water, temporary habitats and depressions that only occasionally have standing water, or areas next to streams that are subject to periodic flooding.

Here in the arid West, wetlands play a vital role in supporting mountain, plains and urban ecosystems. Although wetlands comprise just a precious two percent of Colorado’s landscape, they provide benefits to more than 75 percent of our living organisms, including many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans, spiders and insects.

Wetlands are far more than wildlife sanctuaries. This year's wetlands theme is "It Pays to Save Wetlands," a phrase that emphasizes the economic value of wetlands. One of the most obvious is the contribution wetlands make to our state’s recreational economy by supporting the fishing, hunting and wildlife-watching opportunities that millions enjoy each year.

Many of the benefits that wetlands provide are overlooked. Perhaps the most basic of these are the physical roles wetlands play in managing water. Wetlands are nature’s sponges -- places that capture, store and slowly release water. These sponges make water available to support ecosystems and provide stable surface water flows and recharge areas for groundwater. Wetlands also act as filters that remove excess sediments and pollutants, cleaning our streams and lakes and reducing the cost of treating our drinking water. In Colorado, where snowmelt and downpours can violently swell rivers and streams, wetlands provide a vital role in flood control, acting as buffers to slow and absorb water and reduce damage.

Unfortunately, these benefits have historically not been fully appreciated. As a consequence, wetland acreage in Colorado has been reduced by about one-half over the past two centuries. Most have been lost due to conversion to cropland, dewatering for irrigation purposes, overgrazing by livestock, residential and commercial development, stream channelization, dewatering for municipal and industrial use, contamination from sewage and industrial waste and other activities.

The good news is, the tide is turning. Today, wetlands are much better understood, and as Americans have become more aware, the rate of wetlands loss has declined dramatically. To achieve our national goal of a net increase in wetlands, learning how to preserve wetlands as we grow and develop is critical. In Colorado, some local governments and developers are taking proactive steps to maintain existing wetlands and create new wetland areas that provide natural functions. McStain Enterprises, for example, has recently helped preserve 275 acres of lakes, wetlands and upland habitat and create a nature center at Centerra, a 3,000-acre mixed-use development in Loveland. Cities and counties in Colorado are also helping. The City of Boulder, Greenwood Village and San Miguel County are examples of local governments that have taken the lead in enacting effective wetland protection measures.

Many worthwhile events in Colorado are scheduled this month to educate and engage those who want to better understand wetlands. I encourage you to take the time to discover more and participate in decisions that affect the quantity and quality of wetlands in your watershed. You’ll be doing a favor for not just the plants, animals and insects that depend on wetlands, but for the long-term health of your community as well.

Max Dodson

Assistant Regional Administrator, US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8