1988 was a good year to be a swamp. That year President Bush enacted a policy that there should be no net loss of wetlands in the United States. He recognized the importance of healthy wetlands in ensuring a clean water supply, habitat for threatened species, and neutralizing toxins. Water is essential to all life, in one form or another and so swamps, perhaps some of the least appreciated landscapes, had their value codified through law. Also, I was born.
But what did it mean? Well, roads must be built, humanity continues to grow, and wetlands frequently make rather nice developments. Essentially the law declared that wetlands could be destroyed when necessary but when they were, new wetlands had to be created to replace them. Suddenly departments of transportation around the nation were giving waterways another look as new roads made them responsible for rebuilding destroyed wetlands. A whole industry of wetland mitigation came alive as lawyers and clerks, engineers and biologists set to work artificially creating what nature had already perfected. Good news for a budding wetland ecologist like me.
In the large flat valleys that I call home the population is centered near two major lakes: Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake, along with their tributary streams. For years I’ve watched the waves of destruction as the city grew to new margins. There is a constant struggle over the shoreline of these lakes as wildlife refuges, environmental groups, highways, and housing developments continue to refine the ownership status of millions of invasive swampy reeds. Not that I’m complaining, as a result millions of dollars are available for research. Without controversy how else could you convince someone to pay you to hang out in a swamp all day?
Two years ago I was hired by a professor to help him study streams in the high Uinta Mountains. My love for those mountains is so profound that I have been guilty of buying a book just because the cover contained a picture of one of my favorite peaks. Spending a summer backpacking obscure mountain lakes seemed like a dream. Well, it was a dream. We spent only seven days in those mountains. The rest of the summer we worked on some government contact to assess a restoration project on a little creek named Hobble just off the freeway a mere 14 minutes from campus.
When most residents in Utah Valley think of Hobble Creek they picture a vibrant Wasatch Canyon with a nice golf course, numerous picnic areas, summer homes, and a few summer camps. This relatively small canyon also produces a perfectly-sized creek which drains the canyon of its annual snowpack. It enters the valley and ends in Utah Lake, passing through a town called Springville somewhere along the way. We explored those urban stretches of river. Using a well-traveled triangular sweep net we turned over rocks and dumped whatever insect, worm, or silt happened to float into our net into a Ziploc bag to take back to the lab and process.
Field biology is largely summer work so while it is summer we spend as much time away from the lab as we can. This means our bag of aquatic friends had to stay in one piece until the snows kept us inside long enough to look at them.
The easiest way to accomplish this is by dumping a little ethanol; say a 70% solution, over them. They squirm around for a little while but stonefly larvae just aren’t designed to survive that treatment. It was hard the first few times, watching the little bugs struggle as the alcohol burned them to death. In my darker moments I wonder if in some heavenly future those 30,000 insects won’t come up to me and ask for some sort of explanation as to why I ended their lives prematurely. Dr. Nelson, whose 30 year career in entomology has resulted in the early death of millions of robber flies, assures me that insects are by far, and by every measure, plenty abundant in this world. After all, this is science, what are a few hundred bugs in the face of scientific exploration? Their deaths will save other insects from the horrific prospect of never existing. This is how wetland scientists work. Without our bags of dead bugs how can we understand the health of the stream?
The abundant water flowing out of the canyon is responsible for the community below it. Hobble Creek allowed for agricultural success in the area although this success relied on getting the water from the creek to the right field at the right time. So the early settlers tamed the stream. It was straightened and dikes built along the banks to prevent flooding and allow more space for civilization. Dams and diversions were added so irrigation water could share the life of the stream with fields of the valley. As the fields grew larger on the clear clean water of Wasatch snowmelt the lower stream became a drain for all the leftovers. Phosphate and nitrogen fertilizers, motor oil and pesticides, even tires and shopping carts find their way to the concrete channel. The sensitive stoneflies don’t live in the lower river.
But even concreted in the backyard of a city a stream is life. Tall trees shade most of the channel which cuts through city blocks regardless of housing, parks, or Main Street. Walking a river is seeing the world from its sewers. Piles of trash, rope swings, a dead muskrat, and overused furniture liter the bottom of the stream channel. Evidence of fishing line and tree forts shows the children have not forgotten the wonder of a stream even if the city has. Just a few yards upstream from the freeway we found a decomposing deer once. Based on the smell it had been there for several days. It must have followed the stream down from the mountains just like we did, staying in the narrow green ribbon of life. Trapped by the city bustle and the freeway it died right there, from what cause I can only guess.
Houses move closer and closer to the stream as the channel became narrower near the center of the city, removing oxbows ponds and backwater pools where young fish used to rest and hide from the larger predatory fish trolling the stream. This part of the stream is home to the trout. I counted 34 of them belly up one sunny July day as we wandered the stream searching for bugs. The creek was flowing, though not much more than a trickle. A man named Joseph who had his backyard porch swing overlooking the creek at the same spot where we had stationed our thermograph told us the week before the stream had been completely dry. It wasn’t a severe drought or a lack of snowpack high in the mountains. Some crops demanded the water so the creek was diverted, down to the last drop. The panicked trout had fled to the few shallow pools left in the deepest parts of the creek. That many fish cannot live long crowded in still water. They breathed all the oxygen and perished, down to the last fish.
Now, you might think that a few small trout are a small price to pay for agriculture. I’m sure the acres of cabbage or broccoli will feed more people than those trout could. Sure people may notice dead fish, particularly when they are in their backyard. But this isn’t the first time Hobble Creek has gone dry, nor will it be the last. Trout will migrate down from the cleaner mountain portion or up from the lake. They will return. They almost always do. Besides, this is industry, what are a few dozen dead fish in the face of feeding humanity?
Another fish however, attracted enough attention that in 1986 it was listed as endangered. The June Sucker is native to Utah Lake and uses the tributary streams like Hobble Creek to spawn. So, using four million dollars of endangered species money and wetland restoration money the last 400 yards of Hobble Creek were fixed and returned to a semi-natural state (along with funding some research experiences for nearby university students). The state purchased a farmer’s field and dug up it up to create the sinuous plain that should exist where a river enters a lake. This small parcel of land, officially a wildlife management area, is exactly what master’s projects are made of.
Every few weeks we visit these manmade wetlands to collect one thing or another. We scoop up cups of zooplankton, only knowing they are there by watching them frantically swimming when ethanol is added. Thousands more insects find their way into our plastic bags for later examination in the lab. We beat paths through the restored native plants so we can measure and categorize the vegetation to make sure the proper things are growing there. As it is a popular place for fishermen we frequently run across the abandoned bleached bones of trash fish along the bank. We once brought back a cheek bone for our professor to identify. He called it a carp operculum, snapped it in half, and then went to see if the department chair could ID it.
With seven million pounds of carp in the lake they are a major problem for the June Suckers. Occasionally, if you are quiet enough, you can see the carp swimming through the shallow ponds of our wetland, taking gulps of air since gills can’t provide enough oxygen in the shallow warm ponds. The carp don’t seem to mind but in the peak of the summer the white bass sometimes go belly up as decomposing algae, fat from the extra phosphates, suck all the oxygen from the water. Low oxygen levels create a perfect home for anaerobic bacteria which takes over decomposition when everything else suffocates. These bacteria give a swamp the characteristic smell and blacken the mud that stains the bottom of our boots.
We spent three days measuring the life-giving oxygen in the water. The first time was in the summer when spending 48 hours camped in a swamp next to the freeway seemed a pleasant adventure. We set up our version of a hobo camp, modeled after the several we had seen along the creek upstream. I brought along a couple books and a knife for wood carving hoping to have plenty of time to enjoy being outside. We had to measure the oxygen every four hours and we soon discovered it took about two hours to complete a round of measurements, leaving a mere two hours between samples for sleep. Standing up to your elbows in a swamp at 3 am makes you question life a little bit. I’m still a biologist.
We discovered that some logs had blocked the river, raising the water level. This meant that our study sites, disconnected side ponds which serve as June Sucker nurseries, were now all connected in the flowing water. We discussed it with the professor and decided to modify the habitat and restore our system to our preferred natural condition. So we went out and broke down the dam and watched thousands of gallons sweep the channel clean. The next day when we returned with our nets and probes the logjam had been restored completely, with the ponds flooded once more. We decided to let the beavers keep their dam this time.
Three months later we sampled oxygen again. This time the water was warmer than the air. The beavers had continued to alter the ponds so we found the water deeper and with far fewer insects than before, possibly because more stable conditions allowed voracious introduced mosquito fish to spawn unchecked. In one pond we avoided a dead possum on the bank that had a halo of colored bacteria protecting it. At least the mosquitoes had died in the 40 degree air. The oxygen didn’t fluctuate much in the fall. The algae had mostly died out and colder temperatures slowed the decaying processes.
Wetlands are complicated places. They are the drains of the world, ignored until they fail. They collect the salts, phosphates, decomposing leaves, and lost plankton of whatever lies upstream into warm shallow pools for processing before releasing them into the lake. Pools of rotting ooze feed billows of midges and mosquitoes. The swarms of flies feed the flopping carp and dithering white bass, keeping them fed until the juvenile June Suckers appear to give them larger snacks. All the dead and dying from Hobble Creek and Springville wash down to this place where the bacteria, with or without oxygen, will perform the thankless job of breaking them down to feed the next generation. Cottonwoods and willows, cattails and reeds suck up the nutrient rich water in yearly bursts of productivity. Ducks, herons, ibis, and pelicans take their turn as fox, raccoon, beaver, feral cats, and water rats nibble at the margins: all thriving life hanging on at the end of the line.