AUSTIN, Texas — As Hurricane Rita was bearing down on the Texas coast, those who work to protect coastal estuaries had occasion to ponder the value of wetlands to absorb storm impacts and control flooding. As it happened, Sept. 24 was National Estuary Day.

“How much should a community pay to manage flooding from storm waters, protect it from devastating storm surges from the Gulf, and clean pollutants from runoff before the runoff enters the bay?” asked David Buzan, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who specializes in coastal conservation.

“Wetlands in our bays perform all these important functions and more for free. One study suggests wetlands provide nearly $7,000 per acre of services each year.”

An estuary occurs where freshwater from rivers meets saltwater from the sea. Larry McKinney, Ph.D., and TPWD coastal fisheries division director, once called estuaries, “solar powered ecological factories.” This is because here plants use the sun’s energy to sustain a huge diversity of marine life. These places with varying degrees of salt content or “salinity gradients” are the nursery areas that form the foundation of the coastal food chain.

Wetlands in or near Texas estuaries benefit people and wildlife. They capture and store storm runoff like a sponge and then release it back into the system slowly. This reduces flood peaks and maintains flows in rivers, creeks and streams. As highlighted in news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, large areas of coastal wetlands have been lost, but those that remain help absorb the brunt of incoming storms, dampening storm energy before storms reach homes.

“For every one to three miles of coastal wetland, storm surges are reduced by about a foot,” Buzan said. “Wetlands can also remove chemical contamination from waters entering them. They trap sediments laden with pollutants and transform chemicals to less harmful forms through bacterial decomposition.”

In addition to helping protect homes and businesses, Buzan says estuarine wetlands provide beauty, recreation and jobs. Wetlands are the nurseries for nearly all economically valuable commercial and recreational species of fish and shellfish. Crabs, red drum, and young shrimp depend on the food and protection the wetlands provide. In turn, recreational and commercial fishing along the coast contribute nearly $2 billion to the Texas economy each year. Bird watching, especially around coastal wetlands, is creating demand for new ecotourism businesses and is bringing dollars to local coastal communities.

Although a large percentage of wetlands have been lost, the good news is people are actively working to protect what’s left and restore or create new wetlands.

In recent years, TPWD has worked with private, local, state and federal organizations to guide the conservation of more than 1,700 acres of wetlands at an average cost of nearly $5,000 per acre.

“When you compare that restoration cost figure of $5,000 per acre with the value to people of $7,000 per acre, that’s a pretty good return on investment,” Buzan said. “I realize people on the Texas coast had other things on their minds Sept. 24, but I hope that some of us will take a moment now to remember that wetlands and estuaries are important for our future, and they will continue to provide many services and opportunities if we will only conserve them properly.”

– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide