A scrappy swamp dotted with reeds, mosses, insects and frogs might not look like anything of value, but to Professor Rebecca Rooney, these ecosystems are priceless.
Rooney, an expert in wetland ecology with the Department of Biology at the University of Waterloo, says wetlands are workhorses, providing numerous “environmental services” to us for free.
While developers might see their main value as being drained and turned into residential areas – especially in hot real-estate markets, Rooney’s research points to wetlands as environmentally important ecosystems.
Wetlands replenish our aquifers and store water, helping prevent flooding. They break down pesticides and other pollutants, to ensure that we have clear water and better human health. They are a natural carbon store, helping to sequester greenhouse gases, and they reduce nutrient pollution that can cause toxic algal blooms in our drinking water sources.
In the absence of their natural and free services, society would need to pay for these benefits in other ways whether in the form of stormwater ponds, sewage treatment facilities, as well as dams or levees to redirect flood flows — money that governments facing huge deficits could better-spend elsewhere.
“People have been saying that ‘we have to build back better.’ The pandemic recession gives us an opportunity to refocus how we want to grow and take advantage of the advances in technology and innovations to grow in a more sustainable manner,” Rooney says.
Resources are drying up
Besides their sheer beauty and biodiversity benefits, including being the home to many medicinal plants used by Indigenous communities, wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Southern Ontario has lost an estimated 70 per cent of original wetlands that were drained for agriculture and urban development.
Rooney and other researchers recently spoke out against a decision in Pickering to bypass Ontario’s natural heritage policies and develop a provincially significant wetland complex in Duffins Creek. Another similar order was recently issued for the provincially significant East Humber River Wetland Complex in Vaughn.
“As ecologists, we realize we are facing an environmental crisis that is real and pressing,” she says. “By virtue of having the privilege to study it, we owe it to taxpayers to make people aware.”
Through both field work and modelling, Rooney and her students measure and analyze the impacts of disturbing wetlands and track the effects of various types of management interventions or restoration activity.
“We try to bring our expertise to bear on questions around how best to manage wetlands,” she says. “This is an area where we can, through changes in policies and practices, really have an impact.”
Today, as Canada looks to rebuild its economy following the pandemic, Rooney says saving the environment by conserving wetlands plays an important role, beyond ecosystem preservation.
“By improving water quality, doing flood mitigation and increasing the restoration and conservation efforts, Canada isn’t just creating a healthier, more sustainable planet, they’ll be a leader in creating green jobs, too.”