By Esprit Farmer
Wetlands perform a multitude of ecosystem functions that are important to both the environment and humans. Flood control, a place for biodiversity, and a canvas for beautiful sunsets are just some of the features that wetlands have to offer, and their positive impact on our ever-changing world speaks for itself. Where would Saskatchewan be without wetlands?
What is a Wetland?
A wetland is an area saturated with water: typically it is mud, clay, and peat covered by a small amount of water. Wetlands are characteristic of the prairies that cover half of the province and can also be found in the boreal forest, making them a defining feature of Saskatchewan’s natural habitat.
Wetlands, and more specifically, muskeg (also known as swamps or bogs) in the boreal forest holds cultural significance for Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Peoples. They provide food, lumber, and traditional medicine for many rural Indigenous communities. In addition, the peat layer of the muskeg can be burnt and used for fertilizer in local communities. This connection to the muskeg strengthens security and independence in northern and remote communities.
What are the Benefits of Wetlands?
The true talent of a wetland lies in peat, which is a thick layer of partially decomposed material, like trees and plants, that can be stored underground for thousands of years. Peat effectively traps carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses underground, helping keep the atmosphere clean, acting as a safeguard against climate change.
Wetlands are incredible at storing water. Because of a clay bottom, the ground can be completely saturated, allowing the release of water slowly over time. This is necessary for mitigating floods: cities and agriculture create runoff, where instead of entering the soil slowly, water runs along the surface. Wetlands will capture this water and slow the flooding, thus protecting our cities, natural habitat, and riverbanks. By doing so, they also function to replenish groundwater and nutrient levels in the surrounding areas.
On top of this, peat acts as an excellent water filter. Water from cities will often contain car exhaust, and agricultural wastewater has toxic pesticides and fertilizers. When water is filtered through the sand and dirt of a bog, these chemicals are removed before the water reaches river systems.
Dangers to Wetlands
Because peat stores so much carbon, it is important that they are left intact. When a wetland is disturbed, methane and CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Peat is often harvested to use for fertilizer and filtration, however, this process has a very high carbon footprint and therefore must be closely regulated. As well, CO2 is released from wetlands when it is disrupted during construction, such as forestry or oil and gas projects.
Every year, over 9,000 acres of wetland are lost in Saskatchewan. Oftentimes, wetlands are lost due to illegal or unchecked drainage for agriculture or mining purposes. This has a troubling impact on our planet and jeopardizes animals, people, and our climate. Sustainable agricultural methods must be approached when it comes to managing the health of wetlands.