The Importance of Wetlands for You and for Muskoka
By Dan Vanclieaf
In a region renowned for its lakes and rivers, the importance of wetlands in maintaining a healthy and functioning ecosystem is often forgotten. In the recent past, wetlands were perceived in a negative light and in many cases were cleared to make room for development. This perception was influenced by a lack of understanding regarding the variety of benefits provided by these unique areas. With new information and research, we are beginning to realize how important these systems really are.
A wetland is land that is permanently or seasonally flooded by shallow water, or areas where the water table lies close, or at the ground surface. Within these environments, water tolerant plants thrive, surviving either completely submerged or on the water surface itself.
Wetlands provide a number of services or added benefits to us and the natural environment. These services include filtering nutrients and harmful chemicals, which improve the health of the lake and allow a number of species that depend on clean water to survive. This filtering ability can be thought of as a buffer, between the water and land, but also between humans and waterbodies. Wetlands buffer the impact of development and other human activities, such as waste disposal and building, on our lakes and rivers.
Wetlands can also reduce the impact of both flooding and drought, slowing down the flow of water over the landscape and into lakes. When the spring rains come, wetlands even-out the flow of the runoff and help maintain safe water levels in lakes and rivers. In the summer as the temperature climbs and the rains subside, wetlands continue to release the stored water into both lakes and groundwater, keeping water levels within acceptable ranges.
Wetlands also provide essential habitat for a number of aquatic and land based plants and animals, including small birds, frogs and other small amphibians. Finally, wetlands can supply a number of recreational opportunities, such as bird watching, canoeing, and fishing, not to mention the aesthetic beauty or enjoyment gained when viewing these unique areas.
One of the most important things to realize is that wetlands are part of the larger system and do not operate by themselves. So what would happen if we got rid of all the wetlands?
Without wetlands to provide these services a number of natural features across Muskoka would disappear. Spring floods would increase and summer droughts would become worse. Many plants and animals would disappear. Wetlands have the ability to impact and influence interactions all throughout the surrounding area, and without them Muskoka would look a lot different.
Small areas of aquatic vegetation close to shore are known as marshes and are important to break waves before they hit the shore. By removing these small wetlands you will experience increased erosion and a loss of animal habitat. Your shoreline will become degraded, impacting many of the values that drew you to the lake in the first place.
Wetlands can also be a popular spot for nesting and breeding, for a number of species within Muskoka, both aquatic and those that travel to forest areas after birth. Some of these species, such as dragonflies and frogs, are critical for the health of the food chain and are relied upon by larger species for survival. Without wetlands and a spot to birth their young, the food chain could suffer.
One of my favourite things about Muskoka is being able to interact with wildlife, whether it is deer, birds, or water-based species, an activity that wetlands make possible. Without wetlands, many of your favourite species may become threatened in your local area.
As seen in the recently published Muskoka Watershed Report Card, many of the wetland areas in the larger lakes throughout Muskoka have become vulnerable due to development and other human activities. It is up to us to recognize the benefits of these environments, and the services that they provide to the surrounding area. If you have a wetland on your property, or on your lake, think about some of these added services and how they may benefit you!
For more information on the importance of wetland areas to the health of lakes in Muskoka, and to see how your subwatershed is doing, please refer to the Muskoka Watershed Report Card at www.muskokawatershed.org/StewardshipWorks.