April is flood season as spring rains mingle with the last of the snow melt. Streams swell over their banks, low areas behind houses and along roadsides fill with water, and fields-recreational and agricultural-are swamped. This is the time to see and appreciate two of several services wetlands provide our community: flood and storm damage control.
Wetlands help keep our basements dry, shorelines intact, roads passable and fields nourished. These are reasons why wetlands are protected from filling by our state Wetlands Protection Act administered by our community's Conservation Commission. Wetlands are located where water is stored and drains naturally. If these areas are filled or constrained, water will be displaced somewhere else-onto someone else's property. Even a little filling here and there can accumulate into significant changes in the location and amount of flooding.
With increasing development in our community, wetlands are more important than ever for flood and storm damage control. Impermeable surfaces of roofs, parking lots and roads increase the amount and speed of water running down hill, through gutters and culverts, into streams that rush on to rivers. Water also flows more quickly over lawns and fields and other cleared areas than in forested areas where raindrops are slowed by branches and leaf litter and seep into the ground. All this water must go somewhere. Protecting wetlands that are naturally designed and located to collect water is cheaper than engineering drainage systems and flood barriers. Wetlands protect everyone's property in the community from increased flooding and storm damage. Wetlands do their job naturally and for free.
These valuable wetlands are seen throughout the community. They are located where water collects for at least 2-3 weeks out of a year. Look for the maroon haze of red maple trees in flower and you will most likely see they are growing out of a shallow basin of water. These swamps hold the extra spring runoff and slowly release it so that all the water doesn't reach the streams and rivers at once. In summer these places will appear dry only to fill again after heavy storms.
In marshes and along stream edges, spikes of cattails, dense marsh grasses and scraggly tangles of buttonbush help reduce the force of flood waters. The plants' thick roots hold the soil keeping stream banks and fields from washing out.
The state's Wetlands Protection Act, along with federal and municipal laws, discourages development in the 100-year floodplain. Floodplains, while dry much of the time, belong to the river. In unusual years rivers swell well beyond their banks, covering farm fields and often playing fields and parks located in these low lands. Unsuspecting newcomers are not allowed to build homes or businesses in these low lying areas without permits, thereby preventing their investments from being washed away by these infrequent but devastating deluges.
While protecting homes from flooding, wetlands also provide several other services. Wetland plants and soils take up, change and release pollutants from septic systems, lawns and commercial runoff so they are less harmful. Also wetland habitats harbor red-wing blackbirds, great blue herons and American toads. While you celebrate spring, appreciate the services of your local wetlands and your Conservation Commissioners, who volunteer to protect them.For more information on the value of wetlands and how to protect them, contact the Haverhill Conservation Department.