News | June 14, 2024

Our wondrous wetlands

Venus flytraps in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Samantha Lewis/SELC)

Wetlands are spaces of transition. Neither dry land nor wholly underwater, they vary vastly and exist in diverse environments: near the coast and further inland, connected to rivers, in booming urban areas and rural communities alike. As the Carolinas flatten towards the coastal plain, wetlands dot the landscape with increasing density, ready to absorb floodwaters and recharge drinking water sources. In the forested swamps of Tennessee’s Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge, towering cypress trees rise from pools of water, casting their reflections below. 

The wildlife and plants that thrive in wetlands have adapted to their unique environments, sometimes turning strange and otherworldly in the process. On the edges of wetlands known as Carolina Bays, for instance, you might stumble across the Venus flytrap, the peculiar plant that makes up for its acidic, nutrient-poor environment by snapping insects between jaw-like leaves. 

Life-saving wetlands   

These enchanting ecosystems are closely intertwined with our well-being. Connected to our groundwater, wetlands serve as natural purifiers, filtering debris and pollutants from our drinking supply. Typically storing one million gallons of water per acre, wetlands act as sponges when it floods, absorbing excess water that could otherwise damage homes and communities and threaten lives. 

 Supporting the life cycle of nearly all the commercially harvested fish and shellfish in our region, wetlands provide jobs, revenue, and the seafood that is quintessential to life in the South. And, of course, wetlands are home to the diverse wildlife that allows for the recreation that birders, anglers, and hunters love and on which many rural economies rely. 

Wetlands under threat   

A man sits at the back of a boat behind a net full of freshly caught oysters.
Dudley Biddlecomb has been raising and farming oysters in his family’s Chesapeake Bay bed since he was born. (Pat Jarrett)

Today, our wetlands are under threat. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically limited the scope of protections under the Clean Water Act, leaving half of our nation’s wetlands vulnerable to pollution and destruction. 

In the decision’s aftermath, state legislatures have already begun pushing the limits of these rollbacks. The North Carolina legislature in June eliminated protections for millions of acres of wetlands across the state, including nearly one million acres in the Neuse and Cape Fear River basins alone. 

The effects of this reckless, shortsighted move will reverberate across North Carolina, a state where the wild-caught seafood industry contributes nearly $300 million in annual economic impact and where communities continue to experience devastating floods as impacts from climate change grow.   

In Tennessee, the legislature debated a similarly destructive bill that would have stripped protections from more than half the state’s wetlands. Lawmakers recently moved to study the proposal more at the end of the session.  

Defending our wetlands

Together, we can fight to restore protections where they’ve been abandoned and stop similar threats before they become law. We take comfort in knowing our region’s wetlands have millions of fierce defenders. Over the next year, we’ll be sharing more about the many ways that people across our region love, connect with, and rely on wetlands. 

As you read these stories, we hope you’ll remember that no matter who you are – whether you’re an angler or birder, a seafood enthusiast, a lover of clean water, or simply someone who hopes your home doesn’t flood – you’re tied to the indispensable, wild places that we call wetlands. Isn’t that wondrous?

Kerri Allen

Coastal advocate and coastal management program director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation

Wrightsville Beach, NC

“Living on the coast, I’ve seen firsthand the damage, heartbreak, and financial hit that flooding can wreak on our communities. Wetlands are the buffer that help keep families and homes safe. When we destroy and develop wetlands, no one wins.”

Sarah Houston

Executive director of Protect Our Aquifer

Memphis, TN

“Tennessee wetlands play a critical role recharging our aquifer, which serves as the sole source of drinking water for Memphis and West Tennessee. The long-term services wetlands provide, soaking up floodwaters and improving our water quality, cannot be downplayed. We’ll continue to fight against legislation that threatens wetlands protections and undermines the health and safety of our communities.”

Tim Gestwicki

CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation

Charlotte, NC

“Wetlands are critical for both people and wildlife. We can’t protect fisheries if the wetlands and streams flowing into estuaries are polluted or destroyed. Protecting wetlands means safeguarding the extraordinary wildlife that rely on them and preserving a way of life for anglers, hunters, and birders for generations to come.”