What are wetlands?
Section 373.019(27), Florida Statutes, defines "wetlands" as "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface water or groundwater at a frequency and a duration sufficient to support, and under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soils." Primarily, the factor that distinguishes wetlands from other land forms or water bodies is the characteristic vegetation that is adapted to its unique soil conditions.
Wetlands consist primarily of hydric soil, which supports aquatic plants. The water found in wetlands can be saltwater, freshwater, or brackish. Wetland types include swamps, marshes, and bogs.
What functions do wetlands serve?
Only recently have we begun to understand the importance of the functions that wetlands perform. Far from being useless, disease-ridden places, wetlands provide values that no other ecosystem can, including:
- Water storage - in some cases, wetlands provide an alternative source of potable water supply as part of reservoirs and in other cases help to maintain minimum flows and levels of connected streams, rivers, and lakes.
- Natural water quality improvement - as water runoff water passes through, wetlands retain excess nutrients and some pollutants, and reduce sediment that would clog waterways and affect fish and amphibian egg development.
- Flood protection - wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, groundwater, and flood waters. Trees, root mats, and other wetland vegetation also slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them more slowly over the floodplain.
- Shoreline erosion control - wetlands at the margins of lakes, rivers, bays, and the ocean protect shorelines and stream banks against erosion. Wetland plants hold the soil in place with their roots, absorb the energy of waves, and break up the flow of stream or river currents.
- Fish and wildlife habitat - More than one-third of the United States' threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives. Many other animals and plants depend on wetlands for survival. Most commercial and game fish breed and raise their young in coastal marshes and estuaries.
- Natural products for human use - We use a wealth of natural products from wetlands, including fish and shellfish, blueberries, cranberries, timber, and wild rice, as well as medicines that are derived from wetland soils and plants. Many of the nation's fishing and shell fishing industries harvest wetland-dependent species. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the catch is valued at $15 billion a year.
- Opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation - According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of all U.S. adults (98 million) hunt, fish, bird watch, or photograph wildlife. Others appreciate these wonderlands through hiking, boating, and other recreational activities.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Wetland Permitting Programs
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the water management districts regulate direct impacts to wetlands from the discharge of stormwater and dredge and fill activities through permitting programs. For an overview of DEP wetland permit programs, see Overview of the Wetland and Other Surface Water Regulatory and Proprietary Programs in Florida (February 23, 2011). It remains the responsibility of local governments to determine what development/land uses are allowed within their jurisdictions and the allowed densities and intensities of such development/land uses.
Local Government Land Use Planning
Local governments can use their land use planning authority under the Community Planning Act to minimize adverse effects of development on wetlands within their jurisdictions. Some steps that local governments can take to protect wetlands include:
- Limiting density and intensity of development adjacent or in close proximity to wetlands.
- Providing for transfer of development rights away from wetlands and establishing incentives for such transfers.
- Limiting or restricting the use of septic systems in close proximity to wetlands in order to prevent introduction of nitrates into the wetlands.
- Requiring wastewater treatment facilities that treat to nitrate removal standards and that do not discharge to Rapid Infiltration Basins and sprayfields.
- Regulating the placement and management of golf courses, and requiring that golf courses use nutrient management plans and practices to limit the application of nitrate fertilizers.
- Requiring that suburban/urban development near wetlands is on central sewer that can treat to advanced standards to remove nitrates.
- Where septic systems are allowed near wetlands, providing for lower densities (e.g., density 1DU/10 acres or less) or requiring the use of performance-based septic systems with regular system management regimens.
- Implementing nutrient limiting management practices for yards/lawns and landscaping that limit the application of nitrate fertilizers.
- Educating citizens on the impacts of use and development adjacent or in close proximity to wetlands and ways they can help minimize those impacts.