Preserving Our Natural State

What are Wetlands?
Why Should We Save Them?

"They purify our drinking water, protect us from floods, and help support fish, waterfowl and other wildlife. But wetlands also provide a sense of wonder."
– from the article "What Good is a Wetland?" in the November-December 1996 issue of Audubon

IMAGE: EgretDelaware has about 223,000 acres of wetlands, and 234,000 acres of deep water habitat. That is about 18% of the state's land surface. About 98% of Delaware's commercially important fishes are wetland dependent.

There are essentially two types of wetlands: tidal and non-tidal. According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), tidal wetlands include salt marshes, brackish marshes, scrub-shrub wetlands, and riverine wetlands. Non-tidal wetlands include freshwater marshes, forested wetlands, Delmarva bays, riverine wetlands and lake-pond wetlands.

In scientific terms, there are five types of wetlands found in Delaware:

  • Palustrine – includes tidal and non-tidal forested, scrub-shrub, open water and mud-flat areas with deciduous and/or evergreen trees.
  • Estuarine – includes tidal areas of beach/bar, emergent, and scrub-shrub wetlands.
  • Marine – includes deep water beach/bar tidal areas.
  • Riverine – includes tidal or non-tidal waterways of mud flats and emergent wetlands.
  • Lacustrine – open water lakes with emerging fringe wetlands.

Here are some of the reasons DNREC offers for why we should protect our wetlands:

Flood Control. Fresh water wetlands act as "slow release reservoirs" which temporarily store and then gradually release flood waters, reducing the impact of flooding on downstream properties.

Water Quality. Freshwater wetlands help remove dissolved nutrients before they can become pollution problems in ponds, lakes, streams, estuaries, bays and coastal waters. They also filter and trap eroded sediment, helping reduce turbidity downstream while lowering input of other pollutants.

Habitat. Shallow open waters, emergent grasses and fringe shrubs are critical habitats for waterfowl and other water birds. Watercourses and adjacent wetlands are homes to furbearers such as muskrats, beaver, minks and otters. Forested wetlands are important habitats for deer, wild turkey and song birds; and wetlands are important nurseries for fishes and aquatic invertebrates.

Shoreline Stabilization. Wetland vegetation adjacent to a shoreline can act as an insulator and protect the shoreline from erosion. The roots of wetland vegetation can form a strong, stabilizing lattice that helps hold the banks of a shoreline in place.

Rare and Endangered Species. Freshwater wetlands are where many rare or endangered species are found. Several species of rare amphibians are wetlands dependent, and nearly 80% of Delaware's rarest plants are wetlands species. Some of Delaware's most interesting natural areas – like the Great Cypress Swamp and Trussom's Pond, Bombay Hook and Prime Hook Wildlife Refuges – are wetlands.

Water Supply. Since rain water drains into and is held by freshwater wetlands, they can act as natural purifiers and rechargers for the aquifers on which many people depend for their drinking water supply.

Recreation. Given the aesthetic appeal of freshwater wetlands, which contain many beautiful plants and animals, wetlands are important for canoeing, hiking, birding, photography, nature study and education.

Much of the information in this article is excerpted from wetlands publications of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and its Adopt-a-Wetland Program.