Living in the Pacific Northwest means living with a certain amount of water, particularly rain. November through January are especially wet but average rainfalls do depend on where in the northwest you happen to be. The Great Bear Rainforest and Hoh Rainforest, for example, are going to get more rain than the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon or Spokane, Washington. But on average, this region can see anywhere from 1-12 inches of rain a month. So when the recent Pineapple Express storm (an atmospheric river event) hit parts of the Pacific Northwest with more than 5 inches of rain in just 48 hours, it was a lot to handle, even for an area that deals with water year-round. That amount of rain was what some areas normally see over the entire month of November so to have it all fall in just two days meant flooding and rising river levels.
In Washington and British Columbia, flooding and mudslides as a result of the storm shut down entire cities and even closed parts of I5, the main throughway for the state and province. With a warmer climate and atmosphere, this storm and others like it bring more rain to regions and make extreme flooding events even worse. It’s not just wildfires that are getting bigger and worse, climate change is literally making all types of natural disasters/events worse. The fight against climate change is literally a fight of life or death, as the worsening disasters are causing the deaths of people, pets, and wild animals.
Wetlands, rivers, and creeks are particularly important, especially during massive rainstorms and in the fight against climate change. In addition to providing critical ecosystems for animals, wetlands, rivers, streams, and creeks also absorb rainwater, filter pollution, and recharge groundwater. Healthy wetlands, rivers, and creeks can have several positive ripple effects on their surrounding environments and by investing in these areas, we also invest in the health of the ecosystem at large.
The definition of wetlands used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers comes from Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which states that wetlands “are areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas.” These areas are vital in the fight against climate change, as they help to slow erosion, store rainwater, and more.
Wetlands are incredibly important in many ecosystems and there are a few different types that all provide vital functions. These types include large, deep basins that can often store extensive amounts of rainwater, brushy or forested corridors that surround certain parts of streams and help anything that’s eroded to end up in essential habitats, and estuarine wetlands which are broad flats where rivers meet the sea. Many wetlands help to store and slowly discharge rainwater into streams, creeks, or rivers. That collection and subsequent slow release of water allow for underground reservoirs to be recharged while also giving extra rainwater a place to be instead of causing rivers and creeks to exponentially rise.
These areas see a range of water levels throughout the year but they do provide a vital ecosystem for many floral and fauna species. Juvenile fish, for example, can often find a spot for resting and feeding in wetlands while estuaries provide a transitional zone between freshwater and seawater ecosystems. In addition to acting as a slow delay for excess rainwater and as mentioned, wetlands can also help enhance water quality, control/limit erosion, and reduce storm damage.
Rivers, Streams, and Creeks
The terms ‘stream‘ and ‘river’ tend to be used interchangeably by many but ‘river’ is generally used to describe larger streams. Rivers, streams, and creeks all act like a circulatory system to the surrounding environments by helping to carry sediments, nutrients, and other materials through different areas. Healthy streams are connected to vegetated floodplains, include a range of features like runs and pools, and are home to a variety of insects, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and fish.
Rivers are home to many types of fish, such as salmon, trout, catfish, and steelhead, and other animals like the red-eared slider turtle, alligators, freshwater eels, river otters, and river frogs. Some rivers in South America and Asia even have dolphins called pink river dolphins! Here in the Pacific Northwest, river otters and salmon are some of the most iconic animals that rely heavily on rivers throughout their lives. Plus, there are plenty of animals that don’t primarily live in rivers but heavily rely on them as sources of water and food. Brown and black bears, for example, often prefer riparian areas and while their diet includes plants and other animals, salmon from nearby rivers is often a favorite treat.
In addition to providing a home, food, and water to wild animals, rivers help build ecosystems by carving out the landscape, draining sentiment, and depositing nutrients in different areas. The Grand Canyon and Colorado River are by far some of the more famous examples of how a river can drastically change an environment. Rivers can also redistribute nutrients and sentiment. Not only are salmon a healthy part of several carnivorous diets, the decomposing salmon that die within the rivers or were carried by other animals onto land release much-needed nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil.
Creeks like Padden and Squalicum Creeks in Bellingham, WA (among many, many others) are essential habitats for salmon, as these fish begin and end their lives in freshwater streams. The temperature of these bodies of water, for example, greatly affects salmon, as these fish are highly stressed by high temperatures. Plus, with the recent flooding in the Pacific Northwest, there are folks worried about salmon because high water levels are unfortunately associated with low species survival.
Healthy wetlands, rivers, creeks, and streams are vital ecosystems that provide habitats for countless animal species, absorb rainwater and help prevent flooding in some cases, help filter out pollution and move sentiment, and help recharge groundwater aquifers. Because of all that and more, these bodies of water are essential for the survival of animals, humans, and ecosystems. Caring for these areas through cleanups, restorations, and planting of native floral and tree species can make a big difference in the fight against climate change and in the rising regularity of worsening natural disasters.