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E-M:/ Wetlands Decline in Ingham County from 20% of Surface Area (in 1800) to Just 3% Today, and the destruction continues

Enviro-Mich message from joonmck <joonmck@gateway.net>

Dear EMers, 

Drain Commissioners have been the Historic Foes of Wetlands. And this is
particularly true for Ingham Country. In a study that I did last year on
Ingham County's wetland loss (and a wide range of other issues, posted
above), I fould that over the past 200 years wetlands have declined in
Ingham County from about 20% of total surface area to just over 3%. This
is a wetland loss rate of nearly 90 percent, much higher than Michigan's
overall loss rate (an estimated 50%).
As you know, to many a farmer over this century a wetland was considered
"too thick to drink and too thin to plow." Once considered as having
little or no value, wetlands are today recognized as important for
wildlife habitat, floodwater retention, protection of the land from
erosion, the filtering of contaminants and river flow.
The loss of Ingham County wetlands probably contributed to "The Great
Lansing Flood" of April 18-24, 1975 which severely crippled the city and
surrounding areas. In Williamston and Lansing 4 to 5 inches of rain fell
in 7 hours on April 18.  The Red Cedar River reached 12 feet, (five feet
above the flood stage), its highest level since 1904. About 4,700 homes
were damaged. The total estimated loss in Ingham County was $50 million.
As you know, wetlands act as nature's kidneys and so help reduce
flooding. They do this by acting as a hydrologic sponge, temporarily
storing flood waters and then slowly releasing them. This reduces flood
peaks and helps protect downtown property owners from damage.
Did earlier wetland loss in Ingham County contribute to the severity of
the flood? According to Steve Blummer with the USGS, "probably, but I do
not know of any work that has measured the effect of wetland reduction.
You would hope that much of the zoning and planning that has occurred in
the past couple decades will aid in reducing damage associated with
floods." But proactive environmental zoning to address water quantity
and quality has been rare in past decades, though current initiatives
seek to change that.
It's An Old Story
Since at least 1819, when Michigan enacted it earliest drainage law to
clear wetlands for highways, local drain agents have interfered with the
natural wetland landscape of the county. By mid-nineteenth century, most
local Ingham County  townships were appointing their own drain 
commissioners, and by 1899 Ingham County elected its first Drain
Commissioner. For most of their tenure, local drain commissioners spent
a good deal of time emptying the landscape of wetlands. In some areas
they helped to make an impassable swamp passable, and thus were an aid
to farmers and other developers. A chief concern of the time was
clearing "swamp and overflow" areas that were "too wet to profitable
cultivate." But they also destroyed thousands of acres of "clayey" soils
that were "usually rich in available plant foods but too wet to farm" in
the Spring. At the time it was thought that destroying, ditching and
draining were the only ways to make a region habitable or cultivatable.

In hindsight the commissioners of the time were throwing the baby out
with the PATHwater. Many designated "drains" were creeks and streams
that were transformed into barren ditches.
This of course still happens today. One reason that so many
wetlands, farms and open spaces are disappearing is because state law
encourages their destruction. And state law is easily circumvented by
the Drainage Code which permits Drain Commissioners to act as Land
Commisars, independently determining where to ditch and dredge with
little public oversight. If a developer's drainage request to the DEQ is
denied, folks torn to the drain commissioner. HB 4803 will only make
things worse!
Did you ever hear that children's song, "All Around the Mulberry Bush?"
Well it has a unique meaning for Ingham County!

With the loss of wetlands there has been a parallel assault on many
lovely plant and animal species in the County. There are 17 threatened
species, 15 plants including goldenseal and ginseng, and two animals,
the spotted turtle and the least shrew. There are also two federally
endangered species, the Indiana bat and the King Rail, a short, stocky
marsh bird. 
Poetically speaking:
"The sweet berrylike fruit of the red mulberry tree, the gentle swaying
of the Cat-tail sedge, the baying Bog bluegrass. Nearly gone."
It is not merely the loss of habitat that is the culprit, a common
refrain. Sometimes it's just the carving up of a wetland that does the
deed. For example, according to Pat Lederle, a wildlife specialist with
the DNR, the Massasauga rattlesnake (Michigan's only rattlesnake) needs
a highland area to reproduce before it travels back down to the lowland
part of a wetland.

Unfortunately developers frequently take the high ground (in more ways
than one) to build housing. See, for example, the new development near
Jolly and Dunckle Road, where the higher wetland areas were appropriated
for commercial development and where Jolly Road was widened thus
destroying valuable parts of the lower-planed wetlands.

See it in person, or read about it at:

Though historically the majority of wetland loss was due to farming,
much of the more recent loss -- in areas like East Lansing, Okemos and
Haslett -- has been due to new home construction and stores. Urban
sprawl is a big part of the problem. Unlike the pre-World War Two era,
when communities were compact and people often walked to work or the
store, new residential development is very low density and car
dependent. The total number of housing units in Ingham County more than
doubled, from 49,693 in 1950 to 108,542 in 1990. In 1960 there were 3.27
people per household; by 1990 that dropped to 2.55. And we own more cars
per household in the county. In 1970 the number was 1.22, by 1990 it was
1.66, an increase of 36 percent in just twenty years.
Still, many folks have the wrong idea about wetlands. Many folks think
of wetlands as mosquito infested areas, but in fact they are quite
diverse natural phenomena, and mosquitoes are often exaggerated as a
problem. In Michigan there are various varieties of wetlands: bogs,
fens, sloughs, wet meadows. Many are without standing water for a good
part of the year, while others frequently evidence no standing water of
note. It is important to keep in mind that most Ingham County wetlands
were not destroyed because of the mosquitoes (which were troublesome in
many areas), but because of farming.
More on the plight of the Ingham County farmer in a few days! 

Again, I underscore that many of these issues are well known to
environmentalists, but ironically, may not be so well known by people
living just a few hundred feet away from a discarded wetland, or a
pollution site. To what can we attribute this lapse, I ask you? 
In general, few people in the Lansing area are even aware of the true
disasters associated with our drinking and surface waters, because the
facts are often inconvenient.
How can people ever grow to full maturity if the real issues are
In Solidarity,
Brian McKenna, Ph.D.
Environmentalist &

"If there are connections everywhere, why do we persist in turning
dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things?" 
         -- Eric R. Wolf, Anthropologist (1923-1999)

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