Until well into the twentieth century, wetlands were considered nature's failure, a waste in nature's economy. For this reason, people sought to increase the usefulness of wetlands. In the agricultural economy of that time, land unable to produce crops or timber was considered worthless. Many Americans began to think of draining these lands, an undertaking needing government funds and resources.
In the nineteenth century, state after state passed laws to facilitate drainage of wetlands by the formation of drainage-districts and statutes. When a number of landowners in an area petitioned for a drainage project, a hearing was held. A district encompassing the area affected could be created with the power to issue bonds, drain the area, and bill the landholders—petitioners and opponents alike. Coupled with an agricultural boom and technological improvements, reclamation projects multiplied in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The farmland under drainage doubled between 1905 and 1910 and again between 1910 and 1920. By 1920 state drainage districts in the United States encompassed an area larger than Missouri.
The earliest effective resistance came from hunters, sportsmen, and naturalist lobbies. Organizations such as the Izaak Walton League, the Audubon Society, and the American Game Protective Association deplored the destruction by drainage of wildlife habitats and began to press for protection of wetlands. These early conservation efforts met chilly receptions both from the public and the courts. A growing number of Americans, however, were beginning to sympathize with conservationists. Drainage projects were often disappointing—soils had proven to be poorer than expected, and the costs were generally greater than expected.
Lower Klamath Lake, in Northern California, became a striking example of reclamation's potential for creating wastelands far more desolate than those they replaced. The lake, a shallow sheet of water fringed by marshes, had been set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as a waterfowl sanctuary. In 1917 the water inflow was cut off. The lakebed dried up and became prey to dust storms. The peat in the marsh bottom caught fire. Rather than being a reclaimed area of extraordinary fertility, the former wetlands became an ecological travesty. Time helped to reverse the damage, but as of 2002 less than 25% of the historic wetland basin remained. In spite of this, the basin continues to support tremendous bird life on a smaller scale.
Efforts to reclaim the Klamath Basin continue. According to a January 30, 2003, news release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (President Bush to Propose Record-Level $3.9 Billion for Conservation Programs) in the fiscal year budget for 2004, President George W. Bush proposed setting aside $8 million for water conservation and water quality enhancements in the Klamath Basin.
Similarly, for many years Florida sought to drain the Everglades, a vast wetland region covering much of the southern part of the state. Efforts there resulted in lands prone to flooding and peat fires. Peat fires are particularly dangerous because they burn underground and can flare up without warning long distances from where they were originally ignited. Costs escalated, and the drainage district went broke. Across the nation, the gap between the cost and the value of reclaimed land widened even more. The agricultural depression beginning in the 1920s increased the growing skepticism as to the value of reclamation.
Nonetheless, during the Great Depression (1929–41), programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation encouraged wetland conversion as a way to provide work for many unemployed people. By the end of World War II (1945), the total area of drained farmland had increased sharply.
Tide Turns for Wetlands
Since the early 1970s, conservationists have turned to the courts to challenge reclamation projects and protect wetlands. If drainage once seemed to improve the look of
the land, today it is more likely to be seen as degrading it. Wetlands turned out to be not wastelands, but systems efficient in harnessing the sun's rays to feed the food chain, and important in the global cycle of water, nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur. A number of studies have shown that the value of wetlands for flood protection is far greater than their potential value for agriculture.
No Net Loss
As the drainage movement once found support in state laws and federal policies, so did the preservation movement. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to minimize damage to wetlands. In 1989 the EPA adopted a goal of "no net loss" of wetlands, meaning that where a wetland is developed for other uses, the developer must create a wetland elsewhere to maintain an overall constant amount of wetland acreage.
A major part of the no net loss policy is the practice of compensatory mitigation. Mitigation requires that a party who alters or destroys a wetland area must offset that loss by restoring, creating, or enhancing wetlands elsewhere. For example, a builder can be permitted to construct a highway that will disrupt a wetland if the builder will construct or restore a wetland elsewhere. The premise of mitigation is that the same amount or more wetlands will be created or restored without unnecessarily slowing down economic growth.
The Army Corps of Engineers determines the number of credits required to obtain the permit needed to develop wetland areas. The ratio the Corps seeks is usually one to 1.5 acres—this means that for every wetland acre the person is destroying or harming, the person must assume the cost of restoring 1.5 acres of wetlands.
Mitigation banking, a variation of compensatory mitigation, allows people who build on wetlands to pay to a "bank" to enhance another wetland area. This is particularly advantageous to the small property owner who seeks to build only one or two structures. The person purchases "credits" in the bank and transfers full responsibility to an agency or environmental organization that runs the bank. Environmental professionals design, construct, and maintain a specific natural area using these funds. Several states use mitigation banking.
Critics contend that new or improved wetlands may not provide the same value over the same span of time and dislike mitigation because it presumes that wetlands destruction at certain sites is acceptable. Many mitigation projects have not worked well because mitigators often have not kept their agreements, it is difficult to mimic natural systems, and even where it is done properly, a wetland can take as long as thirty years to mature. In the intervening years, however, since the mitigation policy went into effect, the science of wetland creation and restoration has made significant advances, so that the number of sites with successful wetland mitigation is growing.