Rate of Coastal Wetlands Loss Increasing, U.S. Study Says

You can see Area A of the Ballona Wetlands being buried by dredge slurry from marina construction just left of center in this 1950s aerial photo.
You can see Area A of the Ballona Wetlands being buried by dredge slurry from marina construction just left of center in this 1950s aerial photo.

The U.S. lost an average of 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands from 2004 to 2009, according to the latest data published by federal agencies. Nationwide, most of the loss was blamed on development that incurred on wetlands1. The losses of these vital wetlands were 25 percent greater than during the previous six years, and equal to about seven football fields every hour.  That sucks.

The figures come from a recent report titled Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Coastal Watersheds of the Conterminous United States 2004-2009. The Pacific Coast region suffered a net coastal wetland loss of 5,220 acres during that period.  In the U.S., most of the coastal wetlands are freshwater — about 34.6 million acres, according to the report, compared to 6.4 million acres of saltwater wetlands.  This is due to the high rainfall and flat coastal plain topography of coastal areas in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard.  Saltwater, or tidal wetlands, suffer a disproportionate loss due to high development demands along the shoreline, where property values are high (as we know well here in sunny So Cal).  Tidal wetlands are also naturally very rare in California due to our steeper coastal topography. 

Saltwater tidal wetlands are a vital part of coastal ecology, supporting fish and other wildlife. They improve beach water quality by filtering runoff and are also crucial to protecting coastal regions from erosion and flooding, particularly during strong storms. Wetlands are also an economic engine for the seafood and tourism industries (did you know bird-watching is the highest dollar grossing outdoor activity in the U.S.?).  See this 6-minute video for a good overview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nGYnpWs-uU

Here at the Ballona wetlands, over 200 acres of tidal wetlands were buried under nearly 3 million cubic yards of dirt dumped from Marina del Rey and Marina building development in the 1950s and 1960s (in their blog, a local environmental group incredibly referred to this fill dirt as "relocated native soil"!).  Known as Area A (between Fiji Way and Ballona Creek), this wetland was originally about 2 feet above sea level, enabling incoming 3-5 foot high tides to travel up small channels and wash over the salt marsh vegetation.  Today, the land is 14-17 feet above sea level and covered mostly with invasive weedy plant species. At the time Area A was buried, federal law did not protect wetlands and in fact encouraged their infilling, which was considered “reclamation" of unusable land.  The landowner at the time was pleased to have L.A. County pay for the privilege of dumping Marina construction fill dirt there, since that would make the land more suitable for future development.  Fortunately, Friends of Ballona Wetlands ended that plan through a lawsuit, which led to the land moving to state ownership for eventual tidal restoration.  If the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project would just get off their bums, we’ll make some real progress toward that goal! 

Enjoy your Ballona Wetlands! 


1.  T.E. Dahl and S.M. Stedman. 2013. Status and trends of wetlands in the coastal watersheds of the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service. (46 p.)  http://www.fws.gov/wetlands/Documents/Status-and-Trends-of-Wetlands-In-the-Coastal-Watersheds-of-the...

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