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Rosenblatt: Calls to 'drain the swamp' insult swamps

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Adam Rosenblatt

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

As an ecologist, I've been dismayed recently by politicians using "swamp" as a derogatory term for our nation's capital and what goes on there. My extensive experience working in and studying swamps allows me to see just how terrible the analogy is. Given the sea of misinformation we currently find ourselves swimming in, I feel this is as good a time as any to clarify what swamps actually are and why they should be regarded as wonderful and valuable parts of nature rather than objects of derision and hatred.

A swamp, at its most basic, is a forested wetland that contains standing water year-round or at least seasonally. However, most people will commonly use "swamp" to refer to non-forested wetlands as well, like marshes, bogs and fens. Throughout history, different societies have viewed swamps negatively because standing water can be a source of disease-carrying mosquitoes, and because the water prevented people from cultivating the submerged land for agriculture or developing it into commercial centers.

But swamp-draining can also cause serious problems for people and the environment, and nowhere is this truer than in the Florida Everglades. Land reclamation began in earnest in the second half of the 19th century. If people could divert water away from the river of grass, the thinking went, then farmers would be able to profit from the rich peat underneath.

It didn't exactly turn out that way. The first part of the plan was largely successful: An impressive labyrinth of canals, levees and dikes was constructed in the northern Everglades, and huge volumes of water were successfully diverted, allowing cultivation of the newly exposed land. But the rich peat that was revealed was mostly fool's gold. The nutrients in the peat were quickly depleted by intensive agriculture and within a relatively short period of time, large portions of the northern Everglades had become comparatively barren and dry.

Also, South Florida's aquifers, which supply most of the region with drinking water, are recharged by the surface water of the Everglades, so "draining the swamp" led to groundwater depletion and subsequent seawater intrusion into coastal wells. Conservationists and ecosystem managers have worked for decades to restore the Everglades but the damage has not been easily reversible.

Beyond recharging groundwater supplies, swamps provide numerous ecosystem services for people. They can absorb excess water during heavy rains, acting as natural flood-control systems, and coastal swamps such as mangrove forests can protect inland areas from dangerous storm surges. Indeed, during the 1999 super cyclone that ravaged the eastern coast of India, villages that were protected by wide stretches of mangrove forest experienced significantly fewer deaths than villages without such extensive protection.

Swamps are also natural water-treatment areas, with plants acting as filters and purifiers. In addition, swamps support an impressive array of plant and animal species, including orchids, fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians and shellfish. Many of these species are commercially valuable, but they're also aesthetically pleasing in their own right. Last, swamps are very good at capturing and storing carbon, with about 15 percent of soil carbon stored in wetland peat deposits. Thus swamps are an important piece of the effort to mitigate the ongoing effects of climate change.

It is clear, then, that swamps do not deserve their reputation as useless ecosystems, nor do they deserve to be co-opted as a lazy, inept political metaphor. In fact, it would serve us well to conserve and actually expand swamp lands in many areas. The next time you hear a politician or pundit talk about "draining the swamp," remember that swamps can be sources of resource abundance and protection from natural disasters, which are exactly some of the functions a responsible government should promote.

Adam Rosenblatt is a science and technology policy fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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