by Stephanie Glenn, PhD, and Erin Kinney, PhD
World Wetlands Day is recognized every year on February 2nd. This year, the campaign focuses on the connection between wetlands and human life, and in Texas, that interconnectedness is particularly evident.
Texas is covered in wetlands – 7.6 million acres to be exact, covering 4.4% of our state. When you consider that an NFL football field is 1.32 acres, you get a clearer picture of how much of the state is covered in wetlands.
Wetlands are a unique ecosystem that can be submerged in standing water or have water-logged soil. They are considered a transitional or “in between” place where land and water meet; often referred to as swamps, marshes, wet prairies, prairie potholes, or peatlands. Whatever the name, they all have water in common; but the amount of water varies and fluctuates depending on factors such as the type of wetland, the underlying soils and groundwater levels, the season, and the weather.
The upper Texas coast is home to a wide range of wetlands, from the tidal flats of Galveston Island to prairie potholes near Katy, and bottomland hardwood forested wetlands in Montgomery and Liberty counties. Texas has five types of wetlands made up of water from oceans, rivers, lakes, and freshwater. Galveston Bay contains a mix of these five types.
Wetlands are among the most productive, interconnected ecosystems, benefiting both people and wildlife. When it rains, our wetlands filter and breakdown waste from pollutants and chemicals, purifying the water before it flows downstream and into Galveston Bay. Wetlands also behave like massive sponges, absorbing rainwater and releasing it over time, slowing the flow of water into rivers and streams, replenishing groundwater, protecting shorelines, and reducing damage caused by floods.
These unique ecosystems also contribute billions of dollars per year and thousands of jobs to Texas’ economy by attracting millions of tourists who enjoy hiking, fishing, bird watching, boating, and hunting,,. About 98.5% of North America’s long-distance migratory birds pass through Texas, making our state a critical transitory location, with wetlands providing vital breeding, wintering, and migratory stopover habitat for 623 different bird species. Wetlands also contribute to the commercial fishing industry: each year, Texas fishermen catch about 30 million pounds of wetland-dependent shrimp – a value of $100 million.
Our wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act, which defines what wetlands are and regulates their safety. The Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling narrows the definition of a wetland to what is seen: “a continuous surface connection to navigable waters.” But this definition ignores the very nature and science of wetlands – that they are transitional, sometimes wet and sometimes dry, for different periods of time. They are sometimes visible on the surface; other times they are below the surface, but still very present. Narrowing the definition weakens, and in some cases eliminates, the protection of these critical ecosystems.
Texas has already experienced significant wetland loss due to land development. Between 1953 and 1989, Galveston Bay and the Upper Texas Gulf Coast lost more than 30,000 acres of wetlands. Between 1996 and 2016, the Galveston Bay system lost nearly 27,000 acres of wetlands to development. That is the equivalent of about 20,000 football fields. The SCOTUS decision could result in speeding up this loss.
Why does this matter? The disappearance of wetlands leaves Galveston Bay more vulnerable to flooding and water quality issues, as well as the potential loss of bird and wildlife habitat and recreational and nature tourism areas. When wetlands are destroyed, so are their filter and sponge-like abilities to purify and slowly release stored water. Polluted water can flow more rapidly into rivers and streams; floods become more severe and damaging. During every hurricane season, we remember all too well the impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and we know these extreme weather events will happen more frequently and intensely. Our wetlands are an important line of defense.
So, what can the public do to help? Knowledge is power. The Galveston Bay Report Card monitors the health of the Bay every year. Keeping track of the state of our wetlands is vital to their protection. Share what you learn with policymakers and city officials to help them understand the data and the potential impact of damage and loss. Join a wetland restoration project.
As Texans, we all have a role to play to ensure a long and healthy life for our wetlands.
 National Association of Wetland Managers, Texas Wetlands Data,  Bureau of Economic Analysis: 2021 Texas Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account,  Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and Sea Grant: Wetland Economic Benefits for Landowners,  TPWD: The Economic Benefits of Wildlife Watching in Texas,  Bird-friendly Communities | Audubon Texas,  Wetlands – Texas Aquatic Science – Rudolph Rosen,  2020 Galveston Bay Full Report