Importance of the Burwell Creek Wetlands

Rome News-Tribune Op-Ed By: Joe Cook Feb. 17, 2013

In a recent edition, Rome News-Tribune columnist Pierre Noth opined that the Coosa River Basin Initiative was “flat-out wrong” when it came to its opposition to the Citi Center shopping center proposed for publicly-owned greenspace that sits between the city’s Ridge Ferry Park and historic Jackson Hill along Riverside Parkway. 

The more than 1,000 individuals who have signed CRBI petitions opposing this conversion of public greenspace to parking lots and big box stores disagree. Not because they hate shopping centers, jobs and a growing tax base, but because when we fill wetlands and alter the floodplain, we all lose. 

Since we began transforming the shape of our country’s land more than 200 years ago, the U.S. has lost more than half her wetlands. The result: increased flood damages, loss of plant and animal species, declining commercial harvests of important freshwater and saltwater fisheries and polluted water. 

The impacts of the great flood on the Mississippi in 1993 were intensified because of the loss of more than 64 million acres of wetlands in the upper Mississippi River basin. The same is true here in Rome. The Oostanaula River's high water marks since 1900 came in 1946, 1947, 1951, 1977, 1990 and 1996 after—not before—the raising of Broad Street and the construction of the levee system. The only flood to surpass these high water marks of the 20th century was Rome's 1886 flood. It’s simple — fill in the lowlands that naturally hold floodwater and the floodwaters rise. 

The Burwell Creek wetlands in question are home to an incredibly diverse array of plants and wildlife. Take a walk through the wetlands this month and you will hear a deafening chorus of frogs. That’s no surprise. Wetlands are wildlife nurseries, breeding the plants and animals that a host of other critters need to survive. If you hunt or fish, your sport is dependent upon “swamps and bogs” like those around Burwell Creek. 

Although wetlands make up only about 5 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states, they are home to 30 percent of our plant species, and more than one third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands. 

Wetlands — even uplands wetlands like those surrounding Rome that are miles from the ocean — impact the health of our estuaries where commercially important seafood live. In Georgia the loss of wetlands is blamed in part for a 60 percent decline in the state’s blue crab harvest and a 50 percent decline in the brown shrimp harvest since 1970.

Finally, wetlands help hold and filter water, including water-borne pollutants that would otherwise wash directly into our rivers and streams — the sources of our drinking water. 

At Burwell Creek, there is much more at stake than a few acres of boggy forest. 

On Jan. 19, when CRBI led a group of 20 paddlers through the proposed Citi Center development, we paddled across acres of water. Sites where restaurants and shops would be built lay beneath seven feet of water. Since January 2010, the site has been similarly inundated at least 16 times. Is this the place you would build a shopping center? CRBI wants a vibrant and revitalized Rome, but the truth is, there are better places to build a shopping center. 

After successfully stopping this development last year and ensuring that the public will have the right to review future plans, CRBI is now petitioning the City of Rome and Rome-based Ledbetter Properties to create a site plan that protects critical wetlands on the property and preserves natural corridors for walking trails and wildlife habitat between Ridge Ferry Park and historic Jackson Hill.

These improvements will help limit the project’s environmental impacts and better incorporate the project into Rome’s recreational trail system and existing public lands. 

It remains to be seen whether the hometown developer will do what’s right for its community and all those communities downstream.

Read more: - GUEST COLUMN Importance of Burwell Creek wetlands 

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