What if our wetlands went on strike?
This article originally appeared in the La Crosse Tribune on 9/18/2018
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. - The Lorax
On Friday, September 20, people in La Crosse will join millions from around the world in a Climate Strike.
People strike by withholding their labor en masse in order to force management into addressing grievances. The idea behind the youth-led Climate Strike, then, is for school kids and employees alike to walk out of their school or work —or take some other symbolic action— thereby pressuring the powers that be to take immediate and meaningful action regarding climate change.
As I think about this event, I feel fortunate to live in a country where we can still voice our grievances against the government without threatening our livelihood. But it also made me wonder what would happen if other species, or even entire ecosystems, had the same ability. What if, for example, Wisconsin's wetlands, including the La Crosse marsh, simply stopped providing the ecosystem services we have come to rely upon?
My hunch is that it would cause a much greater wake-up call to local and state officials than any human-led climate strike.
If Wisconsin’s wetlands went on strike, the amount and quality of our drinking water would decline. Wetlands act as giant settling tanks, allowing excess sediments, nutrients and other pollutants time to settle out of the water. Some of this filtered water recharges our aquifers and other drinking water sources, ensuring we have the clean, potable water we've come to expect.
If Wisconsin’s wetlands went on strike, we would see increased flood or water damage to housing and infrastructure. A common measure of volume for bodies of water like the marsh is the “acre foot,” where one foot of water covering one acre equals nearly 326 thousand gallons of water. Conservatively, the La Crosse marsh has 1,000 acres that store two or more feet of water during a high water event. That’s over 985 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water not in our basements, covering our fields, and flooding our streets. Moreover, wetlands allow water space to spread out and slow down, thereby preventing infrastructure damage caused by rushing water like washed out roads and culverts. All this comes into starker relief given the impacts that climate change is already having on the Driftless region, including a 42 percent increase since the 1950s in the amount of precipitation falling during downpours.
If Wisconsin’s wetlands went on strike, much of our wildlife would be adversely impacted. In fact, up to 75 percent of all wildlife in Wisconsin depends on wetlands at some point in their life cycle. Wetlands, like the La Crosse marsh, serve as transition spaces, or ecotones, between two distinct ecosystems and are therefore highly biodiverse gathering spots for species from the habitats on either side. Adding to this richness of life, at least in the wetlands in and around La Crosse, are the thousands of migratory birds that stop each spring and fall.
If wetlands went on strike, we would lose valuable places to enjoy the outdoors. Hunting and fishing, two activities deeply ingrained in our identity as Wisconsinites, would become a shell of what they are now without wetlands to clean river and lake water and provide habitat for fish and waterfowl. Likewise, other recreational pursuits like paddling and birdwatching would dry up, as would the millions of dollars from tourism these activities bring to our area.
The Driftless region faces a number of challenging water problems including flooding, declining drinking water quality, and polluted waterways. Wisconsin's wetlands are a natural solution to these challenges yet we have lost 50 percent of them to development since the late 1800s and climate change exacerbates the threats to the remaining 50 percent.
The obvious fact of the matter is that our wetlands can’t participate in the Climate Strike. Do we as Wisconsin hunters, fishers, farmers, paddlers, birders, and citizens who care about our water quality have an obligation, like the Lorax, to strike for them? The Friends of the Marsh, a not-for-profit dedicated to protecting the La Crosse marsh, thinks so. Please join us.