Estuaries are powerhouses that provide natural resources, food, recreation, and natural scenic beauty. These bays and lagoons that enclose areas where freshwater from rivers and streams blends with salt water from the ocean are also areas of scientific research.
Perhaps there is an estuary that is already familiar to you. Prominent estuaries include: New York Harbor, the Long Island Sound, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Delaware Bay, the Shannon River, the Thames River, San Francisco Bay, the Puget Sound, and many others. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America and an area of high population from New York to Virginia.
Peninsulas and barrier islands protect estuaries from storms, heavy winds, and the power of ocean waves. Estuaries are home to important plants and animals, making estuaries among the most productive environments on Earth.
Estuaries also include such habitats as swamps, mud and sand flats, river deltas, oyster reefs, tidal pools and other similar areas.
Estuaries must be managed and protected because of their value to us:
- habitats for many species of birds, mammals, fish, and other wildlife
- migratory paths for the seasonal flights of birds.
- Commercial and recreational fishing
- Shipping and transportation
- Local economies and quality of life
- natural beauty
Sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants flow to estuaries. Our wetlands filter out pollutants and sediments, resulting in cleaner water for marine life and the people who reside in that watershed. The estuary is a barrier or buffer between the land and the ocean and takes in excess water from floods and storm surges. Grasses and other salt marsh and estuary plants prevent erosion and help provide barriers to stabilize coastal shorelines.
Unfortunately, what happens on the land doesn't stay on the land. When a river flows through a farming area, the water picks up fertilizer, pesticides, animal wastes, etc. that run off the agricultural land. Rivers that pass through cities and developed suburbs also take up runoff from lawns, industry, construction sites, parking lots, and surfaces that cannot absorb the excess water. These rivers, laden with these discarded materials flow to estuaries. Although they can naturally filter some materials, such heavy concentrations of materials overload and upset the natural balance, jeopardizing the health of our valuable estuaries.
What can we do as citizens concerned about estuaries? We can become involved at the local level with citizen monitoring groups such as Adopt a Watershed or other similar groups concerned with clean water and preserving habitats. These groups help raise awareness of issues as the local level with agencies and lawmakers.
Estuaries, the bays and lagoons that not only scenic waterways. They are vital to our citizens, our children, our economy, and our fragile environment.