In Canada, the Toronto region has lost 80 percent of its wetlands. Those that remain provide valuable habitats for wildlife…and more than a few benefits for humans too.
National Geographic CreativeWorks
Statistics would suggest that Canada has a veritable surplus of freshwater: fully one-fifth of the world’s total reserve―including nearly a quarter of the planet’s wetland ecosystems. But statistics can be misleading. Much of the country’s freshwater is locked up in glaciers and ice sheets, while issues like ailing infrastructure and a changing climate mean that Canadians in some areas lack access to clean, potable water. Meanwhile agriculture and development have destroyed many of Canada’s wetlands, particularly in the densely populated south of the country.
“In Canada we’re surrounded by so much water―we’re blessed with many, many lakes and rivers … we don’t think that we can ever be affected by water scarcity,” says naturalist Andrea Kingsley. “But regionally, there are areas that can run out of water―particularly in the prairies,” she adds.
Kingsley is something of a polymath: besides lending her scientific expertise to companies as a contract biologist, she’s also an educator, artist, and photographer who is passionate about connecting people with nature. She lives on the north shore of Lake Ontario in the town of Brighton, just a 10 minute drive from Presqu’ile Bay, home to some of the best preserved wetlands in southern Canada, including the Brighton Wetland, which has been under the protection of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) since 2018. “This area is special because so many wetlands have been lost in Ontario, I think around the Toronto region, it’s like 80 percent of the wetlands have been lost. We’re so fortunate that these wetlands have been left intact.”
Kingsley, for her part, has been visiting these wetland habitats for 30 years, exploring the waterways by canoe as often as not. “I think I’m a little bird obsessed, nature obsessed,” she laughs. “I do biology for a job, so I bird for a living. And then as soon as I’m finished birding for work, I bird for fun!” She is deeply acquainted with the wetlands’ resident and migratory species, including insects, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Some of these are quite rare, like the elusive Blanding’s turtle, known for its remarkable longevity.
The area is a mecca for birders―the spring migration season brings with it species like the king rail, an endangered species in Canada; the pied-billed grebe with its distinctive black-and-silver bill; the fleet, fly catching eastern wood-pewee; and the marsh wren, which likes to straddle stems of cattail grass like a gymnast and is a particular favorite of Kingsley’s: “They are very camouflaged, and they don’t like to show themselves. But you can hear them―they’re very loud!”
Kingsley has an infectious enthusiasm for the natural world―a desire to not only keenly observe it, but to encourage others to do so, too, in her capacity as an educator.
“I take people out nature-journaling, and I try to tell them, this is for you to appreciate what you’re seeing. It doesn’t have to be a work of art―this is just for you to be mindful,” she says. “I think with more education, people then become impassioned and want to protect as soon as they know what they actually have around them.”
Wetlands are more than just habitats, however, they are a human resource also, protecting and improving water quality, and providing flood control, storm protection, and other natural benefits to nearby communities. “Wetlands are a natural way of purifying water―cattails are a natural sort of filter system that will take out all the nasty stuff,” says Kingsley. “So why not make wetlands work for us? They’ve constructed different wetlands across the province, and Brighton is fortunate to have one where they’ve created ponds and planted the cattails.” These unassuming reeds are highly efficient at processing domestic and agricultural wastewater, removing impurities so water can be reused.
In recent decades, we’ve begun to realize just how important wetland ecosystems are for both humans and nature. Federal and provincial regulations across Canada are geared toward not only protecting wetlands, but also restoring them―particularly relevant in more populated areas like Ontario, where so many wetlands have been lost.
Restoration is one of the key goals of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) when it comes to wetlands. The Brighton Wetland, for example, is a 230-acre (94 hectares) coastal wetland habitat that has been protected since 2018 with the help of a range of partners―including dishwasher detergent brand Finish, which supports projects around the world that address the issue of water scarcity. Finish is supporting NCC with a US$100,000 investment across three water conservation projects in Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario’s Brighton Wetland. The company also advocates for water conservation in the home, trying to bridge what Kingsley sees as a cognitive disconnect: “People seem to think that humans are not a part of nature … that we’re this separate entity, but we’re not. We are just as connected to the wetlands and the water cycle. You’re drinking water that comes from the environment.”
The reality is, behavior changes that we will barely notice in our everyday lives can have a real and lasting impact―from turning off faucets when we brush our teeth to taking shorter showers to skipping the pre-rinse before we use our dishwashers. In fact, according to research commissioned by Finish, we can save up to 20 gallons (75 liters) of water per dishwasher load by simply not pre-rinsing our dishes! “There are tons and tons of different ways that you can conserve water at home,” Kingsley explains. “Wetlands give us water, but it’s up to us to help make sure that they have water to clean for us. It’s a cycle: We rely heavily on a healthy, functioning wetland for clean water and safe flood control, and, well, even just like for myself, for mental health!”
By being mindful of our own water usage, we can all help support freshwater ecosystems and reduce our CO2 emissions―actions that are good for people and the planet alike.