Recent political discourse in the United States has been, shall we say, lacking in civility. Then again, we’re talking about politics, a human endeavor that thrives on conflict between competing groups. But recently I’ve been dismayed, as an ecologist, by politicians using “swamp” as a derogatory term for our nation’s capital and what goes on there. During his campaign and now as president-elect, Donald Trump turned the phrase “drain the swamp” into a rallying cry, pledging to restore “honesty, accountability, and change to Washington.” Though his dedication to this principle has been called into question (see recent remarks, and recent disavowal of those remarks, by Newt Gingrich), Trump joins an illustrious list of politicians from both sides of the aisle who have invoked the swamp metaphor, including Ronald Reagan and Nancy Pelosi.
My extensive experience working in and studying swamps allows me to see just how terrible the analogy is. Given the sea of misinformation we currently find ourselves swimming in, I feel this is as good a time as any to clarify what swamps actually are and why they should be regarded as wonderful and valuable parts of nature rather than objects of derision and hatred.
A swamp, at its most basic, is a forested wetland that contains standing water year-round or at least seasonally. However, most people will commonly use “swamp” to refer to non-forested wetlands as well, like marshes, bogs and fens. Although Washington, D.C., has long been characterized as a particularly swampy city, thus requiring a good draining, it was certainly not “built on a swamp.” Only 2 percent of the area within the original boundaries of the city could be considered swampland.
Throughout history, different societies have viewed swamps negatively because standing water can be a source of disease-carrying mosquitoes, and because the water prevented people from cultivating the submerged land for agriculture or developing it into commercial centers. The Dutch may be the most famous swamp-drainers, working diligently since at least the 1500s to reclaim land from marshes and the sea itself. The Chinese also have an extensive history of working to reclaim swampland to expand agricultural productivity, especially within the floodplain of the mighty Yellow River. The successes of these and other societies across three millennia have enabled the modern phrase “drain the swamp” to embody progress, control over nature and human ingenuity.
But swamp-draining can also cause serious problems for people and the environment, and nowhere is this truer than in the Florida Everglades. Land reclamation efforts began in earnest in South Florida beginning in the second half of the 19th century. If people could divert water away from the river of grass, the thinking went, then farmers would be able to profit from the rich peat underneath, allowing Florida to become a subtropical land of plenty.
It didn’t exactly turn out that way. The first part of the plan was largely successful: An impressive labyrinth of canals, levees and dikes was constructed in the northern Everglades, and huge volumes of water were successfully diverted, allowing cultivation of the newly exposed land. But the rich peat that was revealed was mostly fool’s gold. The nutrients in the peat were quickly depleted by intensive agriculture, and the water, which could have helped replace the nutrients, was no longer flowing over the landscape as it had before. Within a relatively short period of time, large portions of the northern Everglades had become comparatively barren and dry; huge areas actually caught fire and burned for years in some places.
Also, South Florida’s aquifers, which supply most of the region with drinking water, are recharged by the surface water of the Everglades, so “draining the swamp” led to groundwater depletion and subsequent seawater intrusion into coastal wells. Conservationists and ecosystem managers have worked for decades to restore the Everglades to its historical state, or at least something vaguely resembling it, but the damage that was done by “draining the swamp” has not been easily reversible.
Beyond recharging groundwater supplies, swamps provide numerous ecosystem services for people. They can absorb excess water during heavy rains, acting as natural flood-control systems, and coastal swamps such as mangrove forests can protect inland areas from dangerous storm surges. Indeed, during the 1999 super cyclone that ravaged the eastern coast of India, villages that were protected by wide stretches of mangrove forest experienced significantly fewer deaths than villages without such extensive protection.
Swamps are also natural water-treatment areas, with plants acting as filters and purifiers. In addition, swamps support an impressive array of plant and animal species, including orchids, fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians and shellfish. Many of these species are commercially valuable, but they’re also aesthetically pleasing in their own right. Last, swamps are very good at capturing and storing carbon, with about 15 percent of soil carbon stored in wetland peat deposits. Thus swamps are an important piece of the effort to mitigate the ongoing effects of climate change.
It is clear, then, that swamps do not deserve their reputation as useless ecosystems, nor do they deserve to be co-opted as a lazy, inept political metaphor. In fact, it would serve us well to conserve and actually expand swamp lands in many areas. The next time you hear a politician or pundit talk about “draining the swamp,” remember that swamps can be sources of resource abundance and protection from natural disasters, which are exactly some of the functions a responsible government should promote.