Water is the fundamental source of life for wildlife and humans alike. Here in the Lowcountry, it shapes our borders, nourishes our bodies, and defines our lifestyles. Conversely, raging storms and flooded streets can uproot us from our homes and threaten the longevity of our beloved coastal cities. Our history of devastating storms indicates a tension between land and water, but salt marshes serve as a natural intermediary between them.
Over the centuries of pressure to develop on a finite space, we have lost the natural contours of the land that have shielded us from the climate systems of the Atlantic. With the growing normalcy of high tide flooding and increased storm events, it’s clear we can no longer rely on grey infrastructure to accomplish what nature has already figured out.
Here are 7 facts you may not know about salt marshes and their ecosystems:
1. Salt marsh inhabitants clean our water; a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water an hour.
Oysters are filter feeders, which means they take in water and filter it through their gills to gain nutrients. They play a key role in filtering stormwater runoff that can be full of pollutants such as nitrogen. Healthy reefs ultimately reduce harmful levels of nitrogen by incorporating it into their shells and tissue as they grow. They also protect valuable shorelines by reducing wave energy and promoting sedimentation.
2. That marsh grass you see everywhere? It’s called Spartina.
Spartina grass, recently reclassified to Sporobolus alterniflorus, is an important part of local marsh ecosystems. These grasses help hold sediment in place with their extensive root systems and provide habitat for animals, like crabs and periwinkles.
Photo Credit: City of Charleston Stormwater Service
3. The health of salt marshes plays an invaluable role in shielding the entirety of the Lowcountry from flooding.
This diagram from the City of Charleston Stormwater Service clearly illustrates the benefits of natural ground cover found in green spaces compared with impervious surface absorption found in neighborhoods and cities.
4. Evidence shows that the loss of 1 hectare (2.47 acres) of wetlands equated to an average of $33,000 in damages after certain storms.
According to BioOne, a regression model was constructed using 34 US hurricanes since 1980, which revealed US coastal wetlands are currently estimated to provide $23.2 billion in storm protection services. Not only does development of wetlands lead to significant loss of species, it leads to significant financial losses suffered by the community as a whole. To quote Henry Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, “it’s far cheaper to prevent environmental damage than to clean it up afterward.”
5. Both Federal and State Laws protect salt marshes from any type of alteration or development.
The surrounding environment has a huge impact on their health. Water runoff carries large amounts of pollutants from our streets and can overburden ecosystems despite the purifying qualities of marshes. For this reason, neighboring green space is vital to the longevity of our beloved wetlands.
6. Salt marshes makeup the backbone of the Lowcountry seafood economy.
South Carolina has about a half-million acres of salt marsh, more than any other Atlantic coast state. This reality is responsible for Charleston and other coastal communities’ thriving seafood economies. According to the Department of Natural Resources, “three-quarters of the animals harvested as seafood in South Carolina spend all or part of their lives in estuarine waters around salt marshes,” which supports 1.2 million jobs, generates $144 billion in sales, and contributes $61 billion to GDP in the US.
7. You can help protect our marshes!
In addition to Lowcountry Land Trust events, volunteers can work with community-based restoration programs like SCDNR SCORE (South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement), Charleston Water Keeper, and Coastal Conservation League to do their part by participating in events such as marsh planting or oyster reef construction.
The existence and health of water ecosystems in the Lowcountry dictate the strength of our economy and the wellbeing of our communities. We rely on the ecosystem services of salt marshes as much as the marshes rely on restoration and conservation projects. It’s time to embrace the health of our wetlands as a crucial component to managing flood levels, mitigating storm damage, and supporting marine ecosystems that fuel our way of life. For this reason, Lowcountry Land Trust is committed to conserving healthy marshes, supporting the growth of new marshes, and promoting dryland green spaces.