Exploring Local Wetlands
Years 5-8 SOSE, Science
In this unit students investigate the importance of wetlands in the environment as a resource used and managed by people. They discover the general uses and benefits of wetlands and recognise that different wetlands may have specific uses and values. Issues related to their conservation, protection and sustainable use are introduced by looking at ways we manage and use them. Students become involved in local surveys to gauge community awareness of the value and environmental benefits of wetlands and design brochures or pamphlets to raise community awareness about what wetlands are and how we all play a part in their conservation and sustainable use.
Wetlands occur in many different forms. On the coast, they can exist as coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mud flats, shorelines, estuaries and saltmarshes. Inland they may be flowing streams, billabongs, ephemeral lakes, dams or urban wetlands.
Each wetland has its own unique ecosystem of plants and animals that depend on the wetland for food, water and shelter. In the tropics, wetlands are vital waterways that reflect the health of catchments.
Wetlands may also be areas of great beauty where people enjoy the scenery and gather for recreation. In all their forms, wetlands are very special places.
Wetlands are under pressure. Since European settlement, many have been altered or destroyed for land uses such as urban development and agriculture.
Of those that survived the initial onslaught, many are now being degraded by land clearance, filling, stock grazing, dumping of refuse and littering. Surface water runoff contaminated by pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, detergents and petroleum products is changing the natural balance of wetlands.
To protect and conserve wetlands we need to understand them and learn how to manage them wisely. Much work is already being done to conserve and manage wetlands in Australia.
- What is a wetland?
- How and why are wetlands important to people and the Earth n which we live?
- What are issues affecting the health and long-term future of wetlands?
- What are specific marine and coastal issues affecting the future of wetland and mangrove environments?
- What can we all do to help improve water quality?
- Why and how should people help look after, protect and conserve their local wetlands?
Agriculture, animals, beauty, billabongs, catchment, conserve, conservation, contaminated, coral reefs, dams, degraded, depend, development, dumping, ecosystem, environment, ephemeral lakes, estuaries, farm, fertilisers, filling, food, habitat, herbicides, insects, issues, land clearance, littering, manage, mud flats, pesticides, plants, pressure, products, protect, Ramsar sites, recharge, recreation, resources, run off, saltmarshes, seagrass meadows, scenery, shade, shelter, shorelines, species, storage, streams, urban wetlands, underground, use, value, water, wetland,
Key Learning Areas
- Science; and
- The Arts.
- Critical Thinking;
- Group Discussion;
- Data Manipulation; and
- Goal Setting.
- Collecting, analysing and organising information;
- Communicating ideas and information;
- Solving problems;
- Using technology; and
- Working with others and in teams.
At the end of this unit, teachers should be able to make judgments about students' learning outcomes through their ability to participate in, and contribute to, the following activities:
From Place and Space
3.2 Students create and undertake plans that aim to influence decisions about an element of a particular place.
3.3 Students cooperatively collect and analyse data obtained through field study instruments and surveys, to influence the care of a local place.
3.4 Students use and make maps to identify costal and land features.
3.5 Students describe the values underlying personal and other people's actions regarding familiar places.
4.1 Students make justifiable links between ecological and economic factors and the production and consumption of a familiar resource.
4.2 Students predict the impact of changes to environments by comparing evidence.
From Life and Living
3.1 Students draw conclusions about the relationship between features of living things and the environments in which they live.
3.3 Students describe some interactions between living things and between living and non-living parts of the environment.
D3.5 Students create and establish a model environment, which meets the needs of living things within it.
Read through the unit and mark the activities you think are most relevant for your students.
Consider the learning outcomes most likely to be "worked towards" by students and the outcomes outlined in your curriculum documentation.
Gather together key learning resources used in the unit.
Contact the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and book your class excursion or videoconference.
Sample Unit Sequence
Tuning In: Sample Activities
View the enclosed photographs in the Photo File at the rear of this resource and:
- Discuss the variety of wetland types
- Exchange information about the different types of animals and plants seen
- Make predictions about their role in the ecosystem
- Write character descriptions for the species featured
- Sketch/draw a version of a favourite section of a selected photograph. Share these drawings in class meetings, discussing content, choice and use of colour, and why the wetland type was chosen.
Preparing to find out: Sample Activities
- Talk about the wetlands and their biodiversity
- Discuss ways in which people pollute, degrade or irresponsibly use a wetland environment and what effects this can have on the wetland
- Describe and draw a preferred future for the wetland environment and its plant and animal species
- Identify good practice in maintaining a healthy wetland environment. Devise a code of good practice for others to follow
- Talk about human activities on or around wetlands that can impact on them. Draft ideas to address the issues and make recommendations. Seek out what should and should not be done and possible alternatives. Design leaflets, posters, announcements and advertisements promoting best environmental practices when on, in or near wetland areas.
Finding out and sorting out: Sample Activities
Wetlands have been called 'nature's kidneys' because of their capacity to filter out nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. Wetlands also buffer the effects of floods by holding additional water for a short time, thereby reducing the height and period of flooding downstream.
Wetlands are an integral part of whole catchments and are important to the total water balance. Below is Swans Lagoon, Millaroo in the Upper Burdekin Floodplain.
- As a class, visit a local wetland or view photographs, slides or a video about wetlands. Talk with the students about wetlands, their value and uses. For example wetlands:
- Provide storage and drainage areas for water
- Act as flood mitigation basins
- Have an ability to recycle "waste" if not overloaded
- Provide scenic value, visual contrast and enhance the quality of the landscape
- Support unique and diverse animal and plant populations
- Are breeding grounds for native animal and plant species
- Are essential habitats for migratory and nomadic birds
- Contribute substantially to the food chains of animal and plant species
- Provide recreational places for communities
- Offer education and scientific opportunities for study of ecological principles
- During the class visit or after viewing wetlands encourage students to undertake some of these analytical activities:
- Identify the community of the wetland environment
- Describe two issues that the wetland ecosystem may face, as a result of human activities and natural occurrences
- Predict the consequences of negative human and natural impacts on wetlands
- Talk about the wetlands as a natural resource
- Describe any evidence of animals in, on or around the wetland
- Describe the animal type which is the dominant group represented at the wetland site
- List the habitat of animals observed
- Describe the site's location; e.g. on flat land, on sloping ground, sheltered, exposed
- As a class, visit a local urban stormwater treatment system or view photographs, slides or a video. Talk with the class about the value of urban stormwater treatment systems. For example encourage students to discuss issues such as:
- What wetlands are they trying to protect?
- How do they treat stormwater?
- Where is the catchment for the system? Visualise and produce an urban-based catchment map.
- What are the land uses? E.g. residential, industrial, reserve, vacant land
- What are the types of pollutants?
- Where do they come from?
- These are called end of pipe systems - What does this mean?
- Are these systems all we require to protect the water quality of wetlands?
- Do you have a role?
- Read the information sheet What is a wetland? (See page 2) Use information to make comparisons with ideas gained during the visit to the wetlands. As a class talk about the different types of wetlands and the role they play on farms, in residential areas and coastal fringes.
- Find out if the local council has a policy about developing or maintaining wetlands.
Going further: Sample Activities
- Imagine what the wetland would have been like in 1790 before European settlement. In small groups, discuss how this place might have changed in the last 200 or so years e.g. the habitat, its fish and bird life, water quality, or salinity levels.
- Visualise a pocket of wetland wilderness in the future, as either a sustainable, innovative system which can remove litter and pollutants and recycle stormwater as water for irrigation, for lawns and playing fields, or as a dumping ground littered with burnt - out wrecks of cars, plastic bags, bottles and utensils. Imagine it silted up with mud. Discuss how and why this area has changed in the last 200 years since development. Discuss how the dumping ground might be restored to a functioning wetland.
- Illustrate before, now and future scenes of wetlands. Display in the school, local library, council chamber, or publish in the local newspaper.
Making connections: Sample Activities
Use role-play and discussion to explore issues such as our need for urban, inland, coastal and marine wetlands in conjunction with our need for further housing, industry and recreation. Consider how groups with diverse interests, such as environment, recreation, tourism, fishing, industry, agriculture, local government and local community could work together to reduce destruction and impacts on either urban, inland coastal and marine wetlands.
Context: Wetlands are often subject to competing land uses from a range of people. Often the uses cannot be reconciled, but sometimes compromises are possible.
Process: Divide the class into three user groups and a fourth whose role, as a council, is to make a decision concerning the management of the wetland area. Give each group a fact file to use to construct their arguments. (See below). Each group presents its case, both vocally and in writing at a council meeting in which the council members are called upon to discuss the issues, management options and decisions taken.
Group 1: Conservationists
- The wetland is a habitat for many migratory bird species.
- The wetland is a nursery for many fish species.
- The wetland is an important educational resource.
- The wetland purifies storm water run-off by removing pollutants.
- Development of the land may lead to the release of acid from the soil to the sea.
- Visitors come to the area to experience the wetland, thereby putting money into the local community.
Group 2: Recreational Users
- The wetland is an excellent fishing ground. No decline in fish numbers have been noticed.
- The local fishing industry is worth $15 million per year and also employs people in the fish-processing trade.
- During evenings the wetland is used by hundreds of walkers. Many enjoy the pastime.
- During the day many visit and walk observing wildlife.
Group 3: The Developers
- The wetland could be filled to provide the site for a $40 million resort, with boating facilities.
- The development would provide employment for young people at this time of high youth unemployment.
- Investment would boost local industry.
Debrief after the simulation and assess points raised and feelings expressed during the simulation. Give students material to read about these issues in the world today.
Taking action: Sample Activities
Design a survey to gauge a community's awareness of the value and environmental benefits of wetlands. Possible areas that might be covered by the survey are:
- Age range and gender of the respondent
- Awareness of what a wetland is and the importance of different plants and animals in wetlands.
- Use of wetlands. How often? What for?
- How would you rate these environments? Criteria? E.g. aesthetics, alternative use of park, wildlife habitat, water use (irrigation), picnicking, flood detention, water quality improvement, land value appreciation.
- Issues facing wetlands. Most significant. Least significant?
- Resolution of the issues?
Many other areas could be covered within the survey. It is important that you design the survey so that the completion of the survey requires minimum time by the respondent. To enable ease of processing data, the survey should not require extended answers. Simply ticking the correct box or choosing the appropriate answer are easily understood methods for data collection.
Undertake a Wetland Media Watch. Investigate a local or state wetland. Collect a series of newspaper and journal articles about wetlands. Explore local councils and government departments for public information in the form of brochures and pamphlets.
For each article or source of information, complete the following:
- Note the source and date of the information
- Summarize the information in point form
- Identify the environmental scene or issue discussed
- If an environmental problem is identified, state the cause of the environmental problem
- Research the problem identified, using suitable references from your school resource centre or library
- Describe the likely effects of the problem on:
- Water quality
- Animals and plants
- The landscape
- The people
- List the references used to answer question 5
- Share findings with the class
- Display findings in the school or local council chambers.
Increase the awareness of how human activities can have an impact on wetlands. Design a brochure or pamphlet for a wetland that includes the following:
Map showing location of wetland
- Description of area and catchment including landuse (geology / socio-economic status)
- Major plant and animal species found in the area
- Special features of the area e.g. walking paths, rare plants or animals, educational facilities
- Benefits of the Wetland e.g. flood basin, property values
- Activities that can be undertaken in the area
- Regulations that exist for the area
- Environmental problems faced by the area and catchment
- Threats to area e.g. road corridors, pollution, housing development
- Management and conservation practices employed in the area and how to improve these
- Strategies for individuals to protect and improve the environment
- Roles of different plants in wetlands
- Include diagrams, photographs and drawings where possible
- Share completed pamphlet with the NIE section of your local newspaper or local councils, community groups and state departments.
Peruse the following information about wetlands and use it to support student project work.
What is a wetland?
Wetlands are land areas either temporarily or permanently covered by water, including underground water (and each of their ecosystems). Wetlands include all fresh water-bodies and coastal waters that are less than six metres deep at low tide
They are important in the water cycle as storage areas for water runoff and potential recharge zones for groundwater. Wetlands occur in many different sizes, forms and places: from small springs to sweeping beaches, freshwater to hyper-saline, and from inland to coastal and marine locations.
Wetlands may store as much as 40% of global terrestrial carbon; peatlands and forested wetlands are particularly important carbon sinks. Destruction of wetlands and conversion to other land uses releases large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas that accounts for at least 60% of the global warming effect.
Marine and coastal zone wetlands
Marine habitats like coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mudflats, mangrove estuaries, rocky marine shores and sand, shingle or pebble beaches are common forms of marine wetlands found in and around the Great Barrier Reef. Mangrove swamps, salt marshes and estuaries are breeding and nursery grounds for many coastal and marine creatures.
Coastal wetlands play a critical role in protecting the land from storm surges and other weather events by reducing wind, wave and current action, while coastal vegetation helps to reduce sediment loss through erosion.
The Great Barrier Reef comprises a variety of wetland habitats and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority uses a range of approaches to protect the integrity of the entire Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.
Australia currently has 63 wetlands listed under the International Convention on Wetlands, known as 'The Ramsar Convention,' (after Ramsar, Iran, where the convention was agreed in 1971). Six sites are located in Queensland and three on or near the Great Barrier Reef (Shoalwater and Corio Bays, Bowling Green Bay and most recently the Coral Sea Reserves (Coringa – Herald and Lihou Reefs and Cays).
Inland wetlands are often fresh surface and groundwater water-bodies, but may also be brackish or saline, especially if dryland or irrigation salinity is a problem.
Inland wetlands may be flowing (lotic) or still (lentic) water-bodies. Many inland wetlands are presently (January 2004) drying out and rely on a regular wet season to support water quality and in-stream values (for aquatic plants and animals).
Farm (Cropping and Grazing) Wetlands
Wetlands on farms act as a buffer between land management practices and waterways.
For example, wetlands may filter out fine sediments and nutrients (from fertilizers and animal wastes) and also cane juice, before they reach the waterway.
Many farmers are rehabilitating their wetlands (e.g. by fencing off water-ways from stock and pest animals, by planting riparian strips or by replanting wetlands with local and native plants) to ensure improved water quality and habitat values.
Wetlands on farms also buffer the effects of floods by holding excess water for a short time and so reduce the height and length of flooding downstream. Wetlands provide diverse habitats for plants, birds and animals, many of which 'earn their keep' by feeding on agricultural pests.
Wetlands make a farm a more interesting and pleasant place for people to work and live.
These wetlands are an integral component of the urban environment and include creeks, streams and ponds as well as constructed artificial wetlands. The urban waterways are important treatment systems and provide diverse habitat corridors for birds, animals and plants within a built environment.
Constructed urban wetlands are examples of innovative ways of stilling and cleaning floodwaters while providing a visually pleasing area with important habitat values. The design may include a mechanical system (Gross Pollutant Traps - GPTs) for trapping large debris, a basin to allow sediments to settle (and later be removed) and a filtration zone of plants and rocks for stormwater polishing.
Plants can be used as bio-accumulators as they allow the entrapment of excess nutrients and other pollutants. These plants accelerate the removal process and greatly improve the look of the area. These plants are regularly removed to a sealed landfill and young plants replanted.
This system of stormwater management is known as Water Sensitive Urban Design and uses engineering, mechanical and biological means to improve water quality. There is a direct link between any littering or pollution from homes, streets and shopping centres to our wetlands and coast via drainage lines, and therefore the success of these systems relies on us.
The Commonwealth Government has also compiled a Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia. Queensland has 165 wetland areas with the Great Barrier Reef, which has at least 8 different classes of wetland habitats, being by far the largest. A significant number of the Queensland wetlands are also found immediately adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef coast including wetlands such as the Burdekin-Townsville Coastal aggregation, Goorganna Plains, major bays, river deltas and floodplains.
Issues affecting the health and long-term future of wetlands include:
- Clearing and draining of aquatic wetlands for expanding development activities
- Cumulative impacts of changes to water flows and drainage in river catchments
- Poor management of irrigation water allowing the rise of saline groundwater
- Loss of groundwater replenishment capacity
- Excessive use of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides in catchments; their loss to wetlands and potential cumulative impacts on wetland ecosystems
- Impacts of inappropriate recreational activities (boating, crabbing, fishing, off-road vehicles) on vegetation and the physical environment
- Spread of introduced plant (weed) species and poor management of excess native surface water plants
- Predation on native animal species by feral animals
- Use of wetlands for green waste and rubbish dumping
Specific marine and coastal issues affecting the future of wetland and mangrove environments include:
- Clearing of native vegetation and draining of wetlands (especially mangroves and Melaleuca) for expanding development activities, particularly coastal developments and agriculture
- Disregard of recreational and commercial fishing regulations
- Poor quality water entering the coastal and marine environment from storm water and waste water discharge
- Engineering works that interfere with tidal flow e.g. levees and dams
- Spread of exotic marine species
- Oil and chemical spills
What You Can Do To Help Improve Water Quality
- Be waterwise-use less water
- Clean up after your dog. Put it in a bag, and bin it
- Never dispose of chemicals, paint, thinners or oil down the sink, or into drains or waterways
- Use fertilisers in moderation if you must use them at all (Cuts down on phosphates, nitrates, etc in our waterways)
- Avoid over-watering gardens and lawns
- Compost and recycle as much as you can
- Use fewer plastics. Reuse and recycle plastics
- Choose 'green products'
- Ensure roof gutters and downpipes are connected to stormwater drains, not to sewers
- Wash the car on a grassed area using a bucket of water rather than the hose
- Fix oil and petrol leaks, and dispose of the oil properly
- Use a bike rather than the car
- When fishing collect bait bags, unwanted line and other waste, and bin them
- Stow it, don't throw it. Sort wastes on board and bin or recycle them on shore.
- Control stock access to wetlands and waterways
- Protect native plants, particularly in riparian and wetland environments
- Re-vegetate riparian and wetland areas using appropriate native species
- Use targeted chemical application rates
- Avoid over-irrigating crops, particularly during wet weather
- Control weeds, including excessive native surface water plants
- Restore degraded wetlands and construct wetlands for wildlife habitats
- Facilitate fish movement by removing or modifying submerged man-made structures that may act as fish barriers
- Maintain or reinstate natural drainage lines
- Develop integrated drainage networks to enhance natural waterway capacity
- Maintain undeveloped natural flow paths for floodwaters.
For additional information on wetlands visit:www.environment.gov.au/water/environmental/wetlands/index.html
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Exploring Wetlands - Teaching Unit
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