The state’s wetlands, important for the protection of all life, have been severely degraded over the years. Can they recover? New partnerships may slow their decline—if Mother Nature doesn’t do them in first
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Robert Tudor, deputy executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, has seen a model of a Category 3 hurricane landing near the mouth of the Delaware Bay at Cape Henlopen. It’s not pretty.
“The model shows a storm surge of 3 to 7 feet that will impact the bay and the lower river—even inundating the Philadelphia Airport,” Tudor says. He points to the inland flooding around the Chesapeake Bay when the remnants of Hurricane Isabel charged through in 2003.
That’s only one of the disaster scenarios that threaten the delicate but vital Delaware Estuary and its wetlands, a scenario intensified by human activity. We have, in ways, helped engineer the vulnerability of those wetlands, and without them, we could find ourselves in a heap of trouble.
So what’s so important about all that mud, anyway? In a word, life. Wetlands are a breadbasket for aquatic organisms. Most of our commercially important fisheries depend on wetlands.
“One thousand pounds of phytoplankton found in wetlands supports 100 pounds of zooplankton, which in turn, supports 10 pounds of forage fish and, ultimately, just one pound of rockfish such as striped bass or weakfish,” says Jim Chaconas, an environmental scientist with DNREC’s Division of Water Resources.
There is another important function of wetlands that directly impacts human life. “Wetlands are nature’s water filters,” Jacobs says. “They filter surface pollutants and nutrients that would otherwise flow into our aquifers and other fresh water sources.”
Yet this mighty food processing-water filtration system is shrinking. At one time, 36 percent of Delaware consisted of wetlands. Between 1780 and 1992, more than 100,000 acres were lost to agriculture and other development. And as Amy Jacobs, a scientist in the Division of Water Resources, points out, “Almost all of what’s left (223,000 acres) is degraded.”
Roger Jones, state director and president of the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy, has seen a model for sea level that could raise the Delaware Bay up to 38 inches during the next century. “That would inundate about 40 percent of our state’s tidal marshes,” he says.
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