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Natural and Anthropogenic Drivers of

Wetland Change
Susan M. Galatowitsch

Contents
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Assessing Wetland Change . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Drivers of Change to Wetland Hydrology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Land Conversion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Water Withdrawals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Infrastructure Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Water Level Management . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Other Drivers of Wetland Change . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Future Challenges . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Cross-References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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Abstract

The hydrology of wetlands is dynamic owing to daily, seasonal, and interannual changes in water levels caused by tides, river ooding, and/or precipitation events. The resulting water regimes are primary determinants of many
wetland ecosystem attributes including soil properties, water chemistry and
biotic composition. Human-caused changes to wetlands that result in anomalous water regimes usually trigger a cascade of ecological effects, including
species losses and invasions and altered biogeochemical cycles.These, in turn,
often cause a loss in ecosystem services. Compared to other ecosystems, rates
of wetland degradation and loss have been greater, primarily due to six drivers:
1) infrastructure development, 2) land conversion, 3) water withdrawal,
4) eutrophication and pollution, 5) overharvesting and overexploitation,
S.M. Galatowitsch (*)
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul,
MN, USA
e-mail: galat001@umn.edu
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
C.M. Finlayson et al. (eds.), The Wetland Book,
DOI 10.1007/978-94-007-6173-5_217-1

S.M. Galatowitsch

and 6) introduction of invasive species. Wetland degradation is often caused


by multiple drivers, some of which are site based, while others are regional or
global in scope. This makes wetland degradation difcult to reverse, even
where social and institutional support is strong. However, in the past twenty
years, the complexity and scale of wetland restoration has advanced, resulting
in successful attempts in many different contexts around the world. In many
cases, though, it is not possible to fully restore the water regime of a wetland
modied by human use, so partial xes must be accompanied by ongoing
water level management to achieve desired conditions. An important future
challenge is to develop and implement strategies that ensure the sustainability
of wetland ecosystem services under increasing stress from climate change,
increasing human population and the drivers that have historically threatened
wetlands.
Keywords

Wetland loss wetland degradation wetland restoration anthropogenic change


wetland hydrology land conversion pollution overharvesting invasive
species climate change

Introduction
Wetlands are typied by having some or even all of their areas alternating between
being saturated or ooded and being dry. This natural ebb and ow of water in
wetlands may be caused by tides, ooding of rivers, or precipitation patterns, with
uctuations in water levels occurring over time scales ranging from hours to months.
Less frequent but greater magnitude changes in water levels associated with major
climatic events such as major storms or droughts also contribute to the inherently
dynamic nature of most wetlands. The pattern of changes in water levels, i.e., a
wetlands water regime, in combination with its geomorphic setting, determines
many of its ecosystem attributes, including soil properties, water chemistry, and
the kinds of biota residing there (van der Valk 2012). Many wetland plants and
animals, for example, possess traits that allow individuals to tolerate hydrologic
uctuations or their populations to persist through unfavorable periods, as long as
changes are within the natural range of variability for that system. Changes to
wetlands that result in anomalous water regimes usually trigger a cascade of ecosystem effects, including species losses and invasions and altered biogeochemical
cycles.
While shifts in wetland water regimes can result from natural phenomena such as
succession or geologic events, human-caused changes to wetlands are far more
prevalent. In addition to altering water regimes, human actions direct pollutants
into many wetlands, and in some regions, wetlands are heavily exploited for food or
ber. Wetland impacts can be the result of changes made directly to them or from
indirect impacts, i.e., those resulting from modications at landscape and global

Natural and Anthropogenic Drivers of Wetland Change

Fig. 1 Conceptual ecological models, such as this one representing key animal attributes of the Big
Cypress Marsh, are being used for planning ecosystem restoration in the Everglades region of south
Florida (after Duever 2005). At a glance, this diagram shows that many drivers caused degradation
and that each of the resulting stresses cause many ecological effects to wetland-dependent animals

scales. Wetlands are rarely (if ever) altered by humans in only one way; most
experience changes from multiple drivers. For example, wetlands within agricultural
regions of the world may have altered water regimes from water withdrawals,
receive pollutant-laden irrigation return water, and be dominated by introduced,
invasive species.

Assessing Wetland Change


Anthropogenic alterations to wetlands are seldom recognized and addressed until
degradation is extensive and adverse consequences to people serious. In order to
minimize or reverse this degradation, the most important causes need to be determined. These cause-effect relationships are seldom obvious because some problems
trigger multiple effects, some effects can have multiple origins, and some problems
mask the effects of others. To tease apart these relationships and determine which
causes should be priorities to address, adopting a formal assessment framework can
be useful (Galatowitsch 2012). One typical framework is based on mapping linkages
among drivers, stressors, effects, and attributes. Agents of change causing deleterious effects are called drivers. Some examples of drivers include land conversion,

S.M. Galatowitsch

water diversions, overharvest of animals or plants, and introduction of toxins.


Physiochemical changes to an ecosystem caused by these drivers are referred to as
stressors. Water diversions, for instance, are associated with wide range of potential
stressors, such as reduced duration of soil saturation or ooding, acidication, and
salinization, depending on site and landscape conditions. Responses to these
stressors and drivers by species or ecosystems (e.g., increased mortality of a
particular species, loss of a habitat resource, spread of an invasive species) are
ecological effects. Changes to ecological attributes, or components of the ecosystem
that are of greatest concern, are the direct result of these ecological effects. For
complex assessments, this information is often managed and presented as a diagram
(Fig. 1).
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) comprehensively considered the
causes of wetland degradation worldwide, as well as the social and ecological
consequence of this degradation. This assessment found that, compared to other
ecosystems, the rate of wetland degradation and loss has been greater. One consequence is that the status of both freshwater and coastal wetland biodiversity is
deteriorating rapidly. As importantly, wetland degradation has been implicated in
the erosion of a wide variety of critical ecosystem services, such as diminished
coastal reserves, impaired downstream water quality, and lost food stocks. The
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identied six drivers that have caused the
most extensive wetland degradation:

Infrastructure development
Land conversion
Water withdrawal
Eutrophication and pollution
Overharvesting and overexploitation
Introduction of invasive species

Reversing wetland degradation must address the underlying causes of degradation (i.e., indirect drivers), which for wetlands are most often related to human
population growth and increasing economic development (MEA 2005). Demographic and economic pressures often result in wetlands being used or treated in
ways that are not easily avoidable resulting in tradeoffs between wetland protection and use. So, in order to be effective, solutions proposed for reversing wetland
degradation must resolve key tradeoffs, such as those between agricultural
production and water quality, land use and biodiversity, and water use and aquatic
biodiversity. The entries in this section of Volume 2 provide many examples of
anthropogenic changes where tradeoffs pose major challenges for reversing
degradation. What these cases make clear is that wetland degradation is often
caused by multiple drivers, some of which are site based, while others are
regional or global in origin. Consequently, wetland impacts are often very
difcult to reverse, even where there is strong social commitment. In some
cases, however it has been possible to implement effective solutions and improve
wetland conditions.

Natural and Anthropogenic Drivers of Wetland Change

Drivers of Change to Wetland Hydrology


Signicant changes to hydrology occur as a consequence to three of the six leading
drivers of wetland degradation: land conversion, water withdrawal, and infrastructure
development (MEA 2005). Land conversion of wetlands for agriculture or human
settlement is mostly commonly accomplished by articial drainage and less often by
lling or pumping. Even if wetlands are not directly converted for other uses, water
from wetlands may be diverted or withdrawn to serve as water supplies for agriculture
or other purposes. Infrastructure engineered to limit the extent of ooding or to create
overland transportation corridors also can greatly affect wetland water regimes, a
problem that is particularly common in coastal and riverine wetland systems.

Land Conversion
Draining wetlands for agricultural production, construction, or peat mining is
accomplished by installing subsurface conduits (called tiles) or surface ditches.
Water is drawn to these ditches and tiles and carried away from the wetland,
lowering the water table to beneath the level of those drainage structures. Wetlands
are also drained for peat mining, a commercially signicant resource for fuel and
horticulture in cold climates such as Canada and Scandinavia. The peatlands are rst
drained by land warping the shaping of the peat surface into convex rows and
ditching. The peat is then vacuum-harvested or stripped by cutting it into blocks.
Wetland drainage is typically tied to economic incentives, either provided by
governments stimulating development or in response to increases in global commodity crops. Consequently, wetland drainage losses can be rapid and extensive. For
example, federal policies promoting agricultural production in the US Prairie Pothole region have been responsible for wetland losses exceeding 75 % where
row-crop agriculture has long been the main land use (Oslund et al. 2010). New
subsidies primarily intended to stimulate biofuel production has caused a westward
expansion of row-crop agriculture, triggering a recent wave of wetland losses
exceeding 5,000 ha/per year (Johnston 2013).
The main challenge of reversing drainage losses is that the scale of restoration
opportunities is limited compared to regional losses. For example, the most ambitious program to restore wetlands in the intensively agricultural portions of the US
Prairie Pothole region (the Conservation Reserve Program) only restored about
2,700/ha over 4 years, or about 0.3 % of the historic wetland extent of the area
(Galatowitsch and van der Valk 1999). The technology required to reood individual
wetlands is relatively simple and affordable and so is not generally the limiting factor
for restoration. Wetland drainage can often be reversed by blocking the outlets that
were engineered to promote water output, for example, by plugging a ditch outlet
with nonporous soil or by removing a short section of tile. Where deep ditches were
required to accomplish drainage, these lines may need to be regraded in order for
water to spread across the wetland rather than rst lling abandoned ditch lines (see
Iraq Marshes).

S.M. Galatowitsch

Water Withdrawals
Actions that deliberately divert water from its normal course (i.e., stream diversions, withdrawals, groundwater pumping) alter wetland water regimes. These
impacts are often most pervasive in dryland agricultural regions. The Qaa Azraq
Oasis in Jordan, which consists of freshwater lakes, marshes, and mud ats,
receives only a fraction of natural spring discharge it once did because aquifers
have been seriously depleted. Agricultural development in the region was spurred
by well drilling and dam building, which extracted and diverted so much water that
the freshwater oasis has become highly saline, threatening water supplies for local
communities, wetland biodiversity, and ecotourism. In this situation, the main
driver of change is geographically dispersed, and so problems could only be
addressed because a large number of stakeholders agreed to coordinate water
management. The hope is that with coordination of water use, groundwater use
will not exceed the bounds of what can be sustained, and freshwater aquifers will
once again feed the oasis.
At an even larger scale, unsustainable dryland agricultural development in the
Central Asian Desert, spanning ve countries, nearly dewatered the entire Aral
Sea in less than 40 years (Nilsson and Berggren 2000). Water from two main
rivers owing into the sea were diverted to irrigate cotton crops, causing water
levels to dramatically recede, collapsing sheries, and depleting supplies of
potable water. Multinational agreements largely failed to restore water ows
into the Aral Sea, leaving individual countries to attempt partial remedies.
Kazakhstan, with support from the World Bank, built a dam to store water in
the northern part of the sea and upgraded agricultural water works along the Syr
Darya River, the main waterway owing into the impoundment, to improve water
use efciency. This engineering solution has restored wetlands of the North Aral
Sea, which again provide critical habitat for breeding and migratory water birds,
as well as for several rare sh.

Infrastructure Development
Infrastructure such as levees associated with channelization, embankments to
impound water for agriculture or aquaculture, and road beds constrain water inputs
and outputs from rivers and tides. They also alter the movement of sediments and
nutrients and, on ocean coasts, the balance of saltwater and freshwater. The degradation of Lake Chilika, a coastal lagoon in India, illustrates multiple impacts caused
by infrastructure development. This lagoon was once a complex of shallow marine,
brackish, and freshwater wetlands that supported a diverse shery, served as a major
wintering ground for migratory waterbirds, and provided critical habitat for several
endangered species, including the Irrawaddy Dolphin. Infrastructure development
began along tributary rivers during colonial times but accelerated after 1950 with the
installation of an extensive network of embankments and hydraulic structures used

Natural and Anthropogenic Drivers of Wetland Change

for irrigated agriculture and shrimp aquaculture within the delta. A combination of
increased soil transport into the lagoon from channelized, deforested tributaries and
from sediment movement along the altered coast choked the main tidal entrance
from the Bay of Bengal. Reduced inputs of saltwater contributed to the collapse of
the traditional shery and the spread of invasive weeds. To restore the shery and
critical habitat for wildlife and endangered species, the government created an
agency to oversee ecological restoration. Over the past 20 years, they initiated a
participatory process to manage the wetland and catchment and to regulate ecotourism, established a local ferry system to reduce the road network, and reopened the
mouth to the sea.

Water Level Management


It is seldom possible to fully restore the natural water regime of a wetland modied
by anthropogenic change because of tradeoffs with other uses in the surrounding
landscape. Often, the partial xes must be accompanied by ongoing water level
management to achieve the water regime necessary to support wetland biodiversity.
A key challenge is to create hydrologic conditions, or hydropatterns, that can support
the full range of species typical for that type of wetland. Hydropatterns vary in ve
ways that affect biotic communities and so ecosystem structure and function
(Wissinger 1999):
Permanence: from permanently to temporarily inundated in most years
Predictability: from regular wet and dry phases to very sporadic wetting or drying
Phenology of inundation: the time of year when ood pulses are most likely to occur
Duration of wet and dry phases (continuous periods of inundation before drying and
vice versa): from very short phases, lasting a few weeks, to very long phases,
lasting most of a year (or even longer)
Harshness: the amplitude of change between wet and dry phases: from wet and dry
phases marked by relatively small changes in water table elevation to dramatic
changes that result in deep ooding or signicant water table recession
The wetlands of Tram Chim National Park illustrate the challenges of water level
management. These wetlands were restored by building embankments around
7,600 ha of drained agricultural lands within the Mekong Delta (Beilfuss and Barzen
1994). If the wetland does not experience strong seasonal uctuations in water
levels, wetland vegetation needed for waterbird habitat cannot be sustained. So,
managers attempt to create suitable wetland hydrology by managing water inputs
and outputs through sluice gates and canals. They have restored alternating wet-dry
conditions in the Tram Chim wetlands by blocking water inows at the beginning of
the dry season (December). As rains returns in June, the sluice gates can be opened,
allowing water levels to rise 23 m. The gates can then be managed so that water
levels recede from October to December.

S.M. Galatowitsch

Other Drivers of Wetland Change


Increased population growth and economic development within a region invariably creates multiple drivers of wetland degradation. For example,
overharvesting of sheries, spread of introduced invasive species, and infrastructure development combined to accelerate the collapse of the Lake Chilika estuary
ecosystem. Typically, the most seriously damaged attributes of an ecosystem will
have been adversely affected by several stressors simultaneously. At Tram Chim
National Park, waterbird populations were decimated by the loss of a food source
when wetlands were drained and then impounded and by a change in habitat
structure caused by the spread of an introduced shrub (Mimosa pigra). Nile perch
have impacted the biodiversity of wetland in the Nile Basin, adding to degradation caused by agriculture and overshing. In the Great Barrier Reef, the
populations of many sh species have precipitously declined because they are
overharvested and because eutrophication caused habitat impairment by stressing
plant beds and living reefs. Overhunting of eggs, mammal skins, and feathers,
spurred by commercial markets, decimated the wildlife of Sanjiang Plain wetlands. Siberian weasels, roe deer, and oriental storks are among the species that
experienced severe losses or were extirpated. Losses in the Chinese portions of
the basin have been much greater than in Russia, where human populations are
much lower.
Because wetlands depend on inputs of water from the atmosphere, surface water
runoff, and groundwater, eutrophication and pollution are frequently among the
multiple drivers of degradation. Agricultural production (both crops and livestock), in particular, adds to nitrogen and phosphorus received by wetlands,
which triggers major trophic changes, starting with overstimulation of plant
growth (especially algae). In the past century (1890s1990s), the amounts of
biologically reactive nitrogen and phosphorus have increased, nitrogen by ninefold
(Galloway and Cowling 2002), while changes in phosphorus have not been
reliably estimated. Both phosphorus and nitrogen are readily transported in surface
water runoff, within the water fraction and attached to sediment. Nitrogen also
moves via groundwater (nitrates) and the atmosphere (ammonium). Pollutants,
such as nitrogen, transported in the atmosphere, can be a signicant driver of
change to wetlands far from human settlements. In the Arctic, where pollutant
levels in precipitation are relatively low, colonial seabirds serve as biovectors,
feeding on nutrient-enriched forage across vast areas and concentrating it where
they nest.
Petroleum-based chemicals, such as plastics, pesticides, and a wide array of
industrial products, pollute wetlands. Many synthetic compounds produced by the
chemical industry have been slow to break down in the environment because few
microbes can degrade them (Hinga and Batchelor 2005). For example, the half-life
of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment is about 13 years within a
US estuary (Delaware Bay) and 34 years in long-lived mussels, which ingest toxininfused river sediments (Hinga and Batchelor 2005).

Natural and Anthropogenic Drivers of Wetland Change

Future Challenges
As human population increases, so too will the pressures to use wetlands to produce
food and for water supplies. A key future challenge is to formulate strategies that
ensure sustainable use of wetlands for these purposes, to avoid the collapse of these
ecosystems and the loss of well-being to resource-dependent communities. A second
challenge is linked to economic development, which globally is heavily reliant on
energy sources from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of this
combustion, is accumulating in the atmosphere, causing global warming (i.e.,
climate change). The vast majority of wetlands worldwide are likely to be impacted
by climate change, through sea level rise, by increased incidence of extreme weather
events, and by new infrastructure built to protect humans from increasingly
unpredictable environmental conditions.

Cross-References
Alien Plants and Wetland Biotic Dysfunction
Ecological Conditions and Health of Arctic Wetlands Modied by Nutrient and
Contaminant Inputs from Colonial Birds
Intertidal Flats of East and Southeast Asia
Lake Chilika (India): Ecological Restoration and Adaptive Management for
Conservation and Wise Use
Peatlands and Windfarms Conicting Carbon Targets and Environmental
Impacts
Prairie Pothole Region of North America
Qaa Azraq Oasis, Strengthening Stakeholder Representation in Restoration,
Jordan
Sanjiang Plain and Wetlands Along the Ussuri and Amur Rivers from Lake
Khanka to Lake Bolon, Amur River Basin, Russian Federation and China
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia: A Very Large Multi-Ecosystem Wetland with a
Multiple Use Management Regime
The Nile River Basin
Tram Chim, Mekong River Basin, Vietnam

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