THE IMPORTANCE OF SWAMPS AND THE EFFECTS OF THEIR DESTRUCTION

Jacquelyn A. Vernon, Department of Earth Sciences, Mobile AL, 36688,

E-Mail: Smallfri@comcast.net .

Wragg Swamp was drained in the mid 1950s in order to make way for new development westward from the city of Mobile in Alabama. This swamp served as a sponge soaking up all the runoff from higher elevations to the extreme west of the area. The destruction of the swamp has been the cause of higher turbidity, pollution and degradation in local creeks and streams. This research project educates the public about the significance of the former-swamp and the impact its destruction has had on our local community.

Keyword: swamp, drainage, development

Introduction

A swamp is a shallow body of water in a low-lying area, which is poorly drained. They usually have a variety of tree species such as cypress. Swamps act as a sponge because runoff can be temporarily stored in them. This makes them a kind of natural flood control agent (Encyclopedia.com, 2001). They carry shallow flows of runoff over a large area and help to lower flood velocity as the water is received, and then spread out. Trees, plant roots, and soils help to absorb some water (Lord, 1993). The remaining water is slowly released. This helps reduce sediment loads in receiving creeks and streams. Swamps also help maintain water quality by removing and retaining nutrients and processing chemical and organic wastes such as urban pollutants and agricultural chemicals (Mitsch, 1993).

In the United States, about one half of the original 221 million acres of wetlands in the continental states have been destroyed. Of the remaining wetlands, an additional 290,000 acres continue to be lost each year. They are continuing to be destroyed at a rate of about one percent per year of the remaining wetlands, even though there are federal, states, and regional rules designed to curb wetland loss (Dahl, 1991).

In the past, draining swamps was thought to be a good thing. As all southerners know, warm, standing water means mosquitoes (Schleifstein, 1996). Mosquitoes help carry and spread diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, major diseases of the early 19th century. Throughout time the destruction continued as rising land values and demand for cheap land increased (Encyclopedia.com).

The overall viewpoint of the public has been that swamps are useless land. The fact that swampland is usually cheap land only helps to encourage developers to drain them and use them for commercial and residential development. The public needs to be made aware of the importance of swamps and the results of their drainage.

The Problem

My area of study is around the intersection of Interstate 65 and Airport Boulevard in Mobile, Alabama. This entire area was once known as Wragg Swamp. Figure one is a map of Mobile in 1935, which shows the widest part of this swamp in detail. Sometime in the mid-1950s the swamp was drained in order to make way for the development of what was then known as Springdale Shopping Center. Its construction began a slow expansion westward from the city of Mobile. Over time the area became more and more urbanized, devastating surrounding creeks. Mobilians who were familiar with Dog River and its tributaries prior to the drainage of Wragg Swamp can tell you of a time when the water was clearer, deeper, and with less pollution in the water and along the banks.

Methods

I obtained old maps and some pictures at the University of South Alabama Archives as well as the Mobile Library of Local History downtown. I also spent many hours going through old Mobile Press Register newspapers. I e-mailed the current general manager of Springdale Mall for information. I reviewed several air photographs taken in 1960 over the Wragg Swamp area.


Results

Exact records detailing drainage projects and construction practices in the Mobile area are either not available to the open public or are not in existence. Some of my information is based on differences shown on older maps as opposed to more recent ones. For example, Looking at two maps of Mobile, one surveyed in 1908 and the other in 1957, it is visible that the population of Mobile has for some time been split between Wragg Swamp (shown on both maps as the empty area in the middle) (Fig. 2 and 3). However, by 1957 the surrounding area of Wragg Swamp is getting more and more populated. The swamp is the only thing left undeveloped. You can also see four or five small canals on the 1957 map that are not on the 1908 map. It is unknown when or why this was done, but based on the fact that Wragg Swamp was largely drained by 1957, it is possible that the canals were dug in order to help facilitate draining the swamp.

Sometime in the early 1950s Mobile began a five million dollar drainage project. This project included the construction of Wragg Swamp Canal (better known today as Montlimar Canal or Creek), the widening and dredging of Eslava Creek and Bolton Branch, and the completion of drainage culverts such as the Broad-Beauregard system in downtown Mobile. Wragg Swamp Canal drained Wragg Swamp by way of Moore Creek into Dog River (Fig. 4). The dredging of Eslava Creek was designed to provide more adequate drainage for the Loop area of Mobile (Fig. 5) (Mobile 1950-1960).

A short time later, in 1958, construction began on a new shopping area called Springdale Shopping Center (Rappaport, 2002). A half million cubic yards of dirt fill was placed on the site. The dirt was allowed to settle, and a year later construction of the shopping center began (Fig. 6). Along with the mall itself, a three thousand car parking lot was paved that could cover a highway fifteen miles long (Mobile Register, 1959).

Urbanization such as this is known to cause major runoff problems. Because parking lots and armored creeks are impermeable, runoff gathers speed and goes into newly created storm drains and sewer systems. By the time it empties into a stream the large volumes of rapidly flowing runoff cause eroded streambanks, and widening of channels. This results in lower water depths during dry periods and higher than normal water levels during wet periods (EPA, 1997).

Urbanization also increases the amount of pollution entering creeks. Sediment from new construction, oil, grease, and metal from tires of cars, pesticides from crops and gardening, bacteria from septic tanks and sewer lines, are all examples of urban pollutants. These pollutants enter storm drains and end up in creeks. They harm the fish and other wildlife as well as native vegetation living in and around the creeks. It also degrades the quality of drinking water and makes recreational activities unsafe (EPA, 1997).


Conclusion

Draining swamps causes major problems for local creeks and streams. The degradation of Mobile area creeks and streams began with the destruction of Wragg Swamp. It is a fact that the area is plagued with higher turbidity levels and pollution and bacteria problems. I believe the public should be more aware of the long-term effects of draining and developing a swamp.


Works Cited

Cusick, Daniel; Sprawl Endangers Mobile-area Wetlands; The Mobile press Register; Mobile, AL; 3-22-00; Access Date: 4-1-02

http://archives.his.com/population-news/msg00136.html;

Dahl, T.; American Wetlands Monthly Fact Sheet; 1994

Encyclopedia.com; Swamps; Infonautics; 2001; Access Date: 3-7-02

http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/s1/swamp.asp

Haskins, J. M. Jr.; Map of Greater Mobile Alabama; The Powers Company, Mobile, AL; 1935

Irby, William; Map of Mobile, Chickasaw, and Prichard; Mobile, AL; 1957

Lord, Linda; Guide to Florida Environmental Issues and Information; Florida Conservation Foundation; 1993

Mitsch, W.; Wetlands; 2nd ed.; Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993

Mobile 1950-1960 A Decade of Progress, Mobile Library of Local History.

Mobile County Inspection Office; Mobile, AL; 1999; Access Date: 4-1-02

http://www.mobilecounty.org/publicworks/permits/environmental.htm

The Mobile Press Register; Springdale Plaza Open Thursday with 50 Stores Under One Roof; Mobile, AL; 11-15-1959

The Mobile Press Register; Keep Wetlands at Home and Stop the Destruction; Mobile, AL; 2-4-00; Access Date: 3-25-02

http://www.al.com/news/mobile/Feb2000/4-a356580a.html

Rappaport, Paul; Personal E-Mail; Received on 2-18-02

Schleifstein, Mark; Conflicting Interests Squeeze Marshes; The Pulitzer Prize Winners; 1997; Access Date: 4-1-02;

http://www.pulitzer.org/year/1997/public-service/works/3-2/

Thomason, Michael; Mobile: An American River City; Easter Publishing Company; Mobile, AL; 1975

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; A Series of Fact Sheets on NPS Pollution; Washington D.C.; 1997; Access Date: 2-14-02

http://www.epa.gov/OWOW/NPS/facts/point7.htm