St. Louis ecosystem restoration project highlights importance of wetlands
By Mary Markos
St. Louis District
SAINT LOUIS, Mo. — From the Irish town of Wicklow, to the countries of Nigeria, Oman, Dubai, Australia, Ghana and the U.S., people around the world gathered Feb. 2, 2012 to celebrate the importance wetlands play in sustaining the environment.
The day marked the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, which provided a framework for international cooperation on wetland management and conservation.
This year's theme, "Wetlands and Tourism- A Great Experience," amplifies the significance U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects, such as the Calhoun Point Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Project in the St. Louis District, have on both the environment and the local economy.
"Under the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Environmental Management Program, the Corps of Engineers, with our partners, have worked to restore Calhoun Point so that it, like the Mississippi River, can serve as a resource for the community and animals that flock to it," Col. Chris Hall, the St. Louis District commander, said at the Calhoun Point dedication ceremony in November of last year. "Enhancements made through the project will bring balance and ecological sustainability to the natural environment."
Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, the Calhoun Point HREP and other local outdoor recreation opportunities add approximately $389 million in economic activity.
Calhoun Point consists of more than 2,000 acres of diverse wetlands, and improved habitats for fish, waterfowl, migratory birds and other animals.
The project was designed to improve and enhance wetland habitat quality through constructing a riverside berm, selective dredging, installing water control structures and implementing a forest management plan. It was the first project of its kind to fully embrace the use of historic topographic features to improve habitat while reducing cost and meeting the customer's needs.
The project also helped meet the needs of migratory wildlife by providing a vital habitat link for the seasonal movements along the Mississippi River Flyway.
"Wetlands are an essential component for many species that rely on them at some point in time in their lives," Brian Johnson, Environmental Restoration Business Line Manager for the Mississippi Valley Division, said. "From north to south, migratory birds have to have wetlands for feeding, resting, breeding and rearing their young. They need wetland habitat from where they nest in the north to where they overwinter in the south, and at all points in between during their migration."
Johnson said wetlands, like those at Calhoun Point, however, do just as much for the people residing near them as they do for animals that rely on them and the waterfowl flying over them.
"Wetlands have an amazing ability to filter water," he said. "They are like nature's water treatment centers. Wetlands are one of the keys to a healthy human environment and are among the most critical ecosystems in the world."
Often found where rivers, lakes and oceans meet land, wetlands provide a rich mix of nutrients and produce high levels of oxygen. Additionally, they filter chemicals out of water, reduce flooding and erosion and recharge groundwater.
Pollutants such as metals, viruses, oils, excess nutrients, and sediment are processed and filtered out as water moves through wetland areas, forests, and riparian (streambank vegetation) zones. This purification process provides clean drinking water and water suitable for industrial uses, recreation and wildlife habitat.
One acre of wetlands filters 7.3 million gallons of water a year.
"To use an analogy, relate it to the human body, wetlands are like our liver -- they help filter some of the harmful or excessive elements out of the ecosystem, just as the liver does in your body. What they do helps provide us clean water and helps maintain a balanced, healthy environment," Johnson said.
Wetlands also provide a balance to the physical and ecological environment by serving as a resource or home to more than a third of all federally listed rare and endangered species, functioning much like a sponge and storing (flood) water and protecting coastal areas and providing recreation opportunities for countless visitors each year.
With so many functions, it is easy to see why people around the world gather to celebrate their value every year.
"Wetlands play a crucial role in many of the things we value," Johnson said. "We need to have an environment that meets the needs of humans and of wildlife, and honestly that can't be accomplished without healthy, functioning wetlands."