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Living With Wetlands

Largely due to fear and misunderstanding, wetlands have been viewed as nuisance areas and have suffered severe degradation or elimination as a result. It is only in the last few decades that we have come to understand the value and importance of wetlands and have begun to protect them accordingly. In Massachusetts, the Wetlands Protection Act (Massachusetts General Law Chapter 131, §40) ensures the continued health of wetlands by prohibiting unauthorized work in and around them. 

What is a wetland?

Inland wetlands, like those found in Burlington, are areas where water is at or just below the surface of the ground. These wetlands may hold ground-water (water that flows underground), surface water, or rain-water, where it naturally runs or pools over land. Some wetland types found in Burlington are streams, rivers, brooks, creeks, ponds, lakes, swamps, vernal pools, and marshes.

 Do I have a wetland on my property?

Some wetlands are easy to recognize. If an area holds water year-round, you will be able to easily tell that you have wetlands on your property. However, some wetlands can appear dry at different times of the year. These wetlands are not as easy to recognize. Although these wetlands can appear dry during some seasons, they contain enough water just below the surface of the ground to support certain plants and soils. Only a trained wetland scientist can determine if an area is a wetland. The Conservation Department staff would be happy to help you determine if there are wetlands on your property.

If you do have a wetland on or near your property (within 100 feet of a wetland or 200 feet of a stream), or if you have mapped floodplain (see information on FEMA floodplain below), you will need to check with the Conservation Department before starting any work on the exterior of your home or in your yard. Any removal of vegetation, any work that requires digging or filling, or any expansion of your yard or building will need to be reviewed and approved by the Conservation Commission.

vp summer

 This is a vernal pool in the summer. This is a wetland.

 

Why are wetlands important?

Wetlands help prevent flooding
Wetlands play a vital role in controlling floods. Wetlands help to lessen the impacts of flooding by absorbing water and reducing the speed at which flood waters flow. Upstream wetlands can serve to store flood waters temporarily and release them slowly downstream. Without wetlands as a natural flood control mechanism, flooding can become more severe.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides maps that show estimated floodplain (areas that tend to flood during storm events) for review and purchase online at www.msc.fema.gov. These maps can also be viewed and photocopied at the Conservation Department. Flood insurance may be required if your home is within mapped floodplain. Contact FEMA or your insurance provider for more information.

If a wetland or a stream becomes clogged or blocked with yard waste or trash, water flow may be compromised and flooding may be increased. It is vital that yard waste and trash be properly disposed of and not dumped into our wetlands. If you see wetlands with yard waste or debris dumping, please call the Conservation Department (781.270.1655). If you see a blocked culvert (a pipe that carries water under roadways), please contact the Department of Public Works (781.270.1670) to arrange for maintenance and repair activities.

Wetlands provide vital habitat for wildlife
Many of our native wildlife species depend upon wetlands for survival. Wetlands provide shelter, food, and water to many animals in our area. A clean, healthy wetland will have a large number of different species in and around them. 

There are many insects, including mosquitoes, which can be found in wetlands. Predators such as fish, birds, and a variety of reptiles and amphibians eat insects and their larvae, which keeps insect populations in check. Mosquitoes are considered a nuisance pest to humans, but a healthy wetland, with a diverse community of animals, will keep mosquito populations down.

Turtles, snakes, frogs and toads live in and rely upon wetlands as well. However, it is important to note, there are no venomous snakes or insects found in Burlington. Numerous species of freshwater fish can be found in Burlington’s streams and ponds.

Many species of birds can be found in and around our wetlands. Migrating birds (birds that fly to different places during the winter and summer months) depend on wetlands for feeding and resting areas during their long flights. Birds that live in Burlington year-round rely on wetlands for nesting and as primary feeding areas. Other wildlife, such as the mink, muskrat and beavers, rely on wetlands as well.

Wetlands help prevent pollution
Sediments, such as road sand, become suspended in water runoff when it rains. These sediments carry pollutants with them, such as oil and grease from cars, pet waste, heavy metals that erode from automobile breaks, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. These pollutants are toxic to the environment and can end up in drinking water supplies. Nitrogen and phosphorus, found in lawn and plant fertilizers, are also carried to our wetlands by stormwater runoff. Wetlands slow the flow of water allowing the sediments, along with the pollutants, to settle out of the water column. Wetland plants then pull these pollutants from the sediments, acting as a filter for clean water. Keeping these pollutants from entering our streams and wetlands is critical to maintaining healthy wetlands. Healthy wetlands are critical to a clean drinking water supply.