Flood Protection + Shoreline Erosion

Life On The Water

By Eric Keszler

When your livelihood depends on clean water and healthy wildlife habitats, conservation makes good business sense

Wetlands are important for wildlife. But they have numerous benefits for people too. Wetlands help purify our water, protect us from flooding, and provide us with great places to enjoy the outdoors. They also contribute to the nation’s economy in a number of ways, including by providing the resources that many hardworking Americans depend on for income. Here, we visit with people across the country to find out how healthy wetlands, clean water, and abundant fish and wildlife are important to their lifestyles and their bottom lines, and why conserving these resources is an integral part of their business plans.


CHARLES LAIRD Chesapeake Bay


Charles Laird’s work gives him an up-close look at the quality of the water and the aquatic grasses in Chesapeake Bay. A chicken farmer, waterfowl guide, county commissioner, and crabber specializing in “peeler” crabs (softshell crabs), he spends much of his time on the tidal creeks and shallow-water basins of the bay near his home in Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “These underwater grasses are so important to crabs and other wildlife,” Laird says. “They give small creatures and younger ones a place to hide. I call these grass beds our ‘nurseries.’”


Clean water is crucial in maintaining the submerged aquatic vegetation throughout the 4,500 square-mile estuary, which has suffered from a number of ailments over the years. Many of its woes stem from excessive amounts of sediments and nutrients that flow into the bay and cause murky water and algae growth, blocking the sunlight and oxygen needed for the submerged vegetation to thrive.


As a farmer, Laird understands that runoff from agricultural operations is responsible for some of the bay’s problems. But he also understands that there are solutions that can benefit wildlife and the people who live and work in the region.


“Clean water affects everything in the ecosystem,” he says. “The poultry industry has strict standards about runoff. Keep the runoff in check and we have better grasses in the bay.” On his farm, Laird worked with Ducks Unlimited to build wetlands to catch runoff water and hold it. These wetlands clean the water before releasing it into the bay, and they provide valuable habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. He also notes the wide variety of other work going on to address water-quality issues in the region, including conservation work DU is doing with the state and county to restore wetlands on public lands.


Laird says he has noticed the effects of improved water quality in the bay in recent years. “We’re seeing better grass. The oyster industry has really come back in the past four years or so. That tells me we’re getting cleaner water.”


Raised in a family that farms the land and harvests seafood from the bay, Laird went on to establish his own operation, which he has been running for more than 25 years. “When I was eight years old I was walking through a chicken house,” he says. “If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. It’s in me like blood pumping through my heart.”


These days, he says, “There are not many young people that are going to do this. There are too many questions about if you can make a living. But keeping the water clean has really helped the people who are trying to make a living and keep their families going.”


MARTY HAHN Upper Mississippi River


“Everybody says I have the dream job,” says Marty Hahn. “And for me, it is. I can go out on a public body of water and make a living. I’ve got a pretty good office.”

The owner of Hahn’s Mississippi River Fishing Guide Service in New Prague, Minnesota, Hahn specializes in walleye fishing on about 75 miles of the upper Mississippi River between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and Lake Pepin, a large natural lake straddling the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. He is on the water about 200 days a year, guiding between 400 and 500 anglers on the main river and on its many backwaters and tributaries.


“The Mississippi River has been overlooked as far as being a walleye fishery,” Hahn says. “I get people from the Twin Cities who are dumbfounded by how good the walleye fishing is here. Now, the fishing is as good as it’s been since I’ve been doing this.”


The quality of the water in this part of the river is an important factor contributing to the exceptional fishing, Hahn says. He keeps an eye on the health of the native freshwater mussel populations in the river. “A lot of the mussel beds have grown,” he notes. “If you don’t have clean water, they won’t survive.” The mussels used to be heavily harvested in this area to make buttons, and they were an important resource for the local economy. Overharvesting and declining water quality led to diminished mussel populations in the last century, and today harvest is tightly controlled.


Hahn says the places that he fishes are mostly unaffected by agricultural runoff carrying sediments and nutrients that can degrade water quality. “I’m not anti-farmer,” he says. “We need farmers. Farmers feed the world. So it’s a balancing act.” DU and government agencies are working with farmers in the Upper Mississippi River watershed to restore small wetlands and plant buffer strips along the edges of the creeks and tributaries, which reduces soil erosion and improves water quality. Although water quality has improved, invasive species are a looming threat. “Zebra mussels are here,” Hahn says. “Some of the Asian carp species are getting close, and it might be inevitable that some of them show up here. That could have impacts on the fishery.”


But for now, he says, the resource is healthy and the fishing is great. “We have a really thriving river up here. All fish species seem to be doing well. We have a big population of fishermen here because it’s such a great place to fish, and fishing is a big part of the culture. But if water quality starts to decline, you’re going to start losing pieces of the puzzle.”




Victor Emanuel founded his company, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, 45 years ago. One of his first birding trips as a professional guide was with the writer and environmentalist Peter Matthiessen, who joined Emanuel on a tour of birding hot spots along the Texas coast.


Since then, the company has grown into a worldwide enterprise, hosting around 2,000 clients annually on approximately 150 different trips to destinations as diverse as the Galapagos Islands, Bolivia, and South Africa. But Emanuel’s operations are based in Texas, where he was raised and where he owns a home near Galveston. He says he can see healthy Gulf Coast marshes from his house, where he keeps an eye out for American avocets, brown pelicans, and hundreds of other bird species that depend on these habitats.


“It’s very important if you’re going to take people out to see birds that you have something to show them,” Emanuel says. “There are fewer birds than there were 40 years ago. It worries us to see these decreases. People will always want to go out and see what they can see, but we don’t know what the future will be.”


In 2019, a team of scientists led by Dr. Ken Rosenberg of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published a paper in the journal Science, reporting that North America has lost 2.9 billion birds since 1970. The overwhelming factor at the heart of these declines is habitat loss. The paper also noted that, during the same time period, many species of waterfowl and other wetland birds had actually increased. The researchers credited the work of DU and other conservation organizations for these positive trends.


Along the coast of Texas, Emanuel says, a sharp decrease in rice farming has all but removed an important food source for many bird species. The other crucial factor is warmer winters, which are keeping some migrants farther north. The good news, he says, is that much of the state’s coast has been protected through the creation of refuges and other areas set aside for wildlife. “I would guess that about 50 percent of the coast is protected,” he says. DU has also completed numerous projects on public and private lands in the region.


The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that birders in the United States spend more than $40 billion annually on expenses related to their quests to enjoy nature and add species to their life lists. A Texas A&M University study found that nature tourism in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas pumps more than $450 million into the local economy.


Beyond the economic benefits, however, birding and exploring nature are important leisure activities for millions of Americans. “People want to do something that will bring them pleasure and enhance their life, and some people have told us that our tours have changed their life for the better,” Emanuel says. “Our customers are both experienced and new birders who come from all walks of life. Sharing birds brings people together.”


GREGG AND SCOTT ARMSTRONG Sierra Nevada Mountains, California


It’s difficult to think of anyone more dependent on water resources than the intrepid guides who make their living outfitting float trips on the nation’s rivers. “Our goal is to get people to fall in love with these rivers and canyons,” says Gregg Armstrong, who along with his brother Scott owns All Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting. “We love sharing rivers with people and watching them connect with each other and with the rivers and canyons.”

Today, the brothers operate the business started by their father, George, in the 1970s, and they have built it into one of the largest rafting operations in California. Every year they take about 10,000 people on whitewater adventures and multiday wilderness trips on the rivers that flow from the state’s high mountains.

The Armstrongs have worked with government agencies, nonprofit groups, landowners, farmers, and others to help craft agreements that take the needs of all water users into account when managing the rivers and allocating precious water in this often drought-plagued state. “For us to exist, we have to have clean and abundant water and reliable long-term agreements with the people who control the water,” Scott says. “If we didn’t have collaboration between all the parties involved, we wouldn’t have an industry.”

That industry has been an important boost to the economy in the mostly rural areas where rafting is popular. “In Eldorado County, where we run the South Fork of the American River, rafting is the second-largest revenue producer after skiing,” Scott explains. “Whether you’re a conservationist or not, it’s good business for the county. It’s a huge economic driver for the areas these rivers are in.” The brothers have also noticed significant changes in the region’s culture since rafting has steadily grown in popularity over the past 50 years or so. “Rafting has brought people to these areas,” Scott says. “People in these communities have learned to value these areas and are concerned about their health. They are now more recreation focused and more environmentally aware.”

Like other business owners who depend on natural resources, the Armstrongs are concerned about a future where they face a changing climate, ongoing drought, and continuing demand for limited water. These issues also greatly affect wetlands and waterfowl in the state, where DU is working with many stakeholders to maximize limited water supplies for wildlife and people. “Our snowpack is shrinking,” Scott says. “It has really affected a lot of the rivers in California because we don’t get as much snow as we used to. Water is what has made California, and unless we change the way we look at water, there will be enormous consequences.”

Gregg adds: “Out here, water is the same as the blood in our system. The Sierra is the heart pumping. You stop the blood, and you’re done.”


YANCY WELCH Louisiana Gulf Coast


Yancy Welch says that 40 years ago the Gulf of Mexico beach was a mile away from his house in south Louisiana. Today, he can see the beach from his back porch. “Now I’ve got oceanfront property,” he quips.

But Welch, a lifelong commercial crabber, alligator hunter, and trapper, knows that the realities of coastal erosion along the Gulf are nothing to laugh about. “Louisiana’s marshes are deteriorating, and a deteriorated marsh is good for nothing,” he says. “When marsh disappears and you lose vegetation, it becomes a big open area. The crabs have nowhere to feed.”

More than 1.2 million acres of Louisiana’s coastal marshes have been converted to open water since 1932, mostly due to the construction of levees along the Mississippi River, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and numerous navigation canals, as well as subsidence, storms, prolonged flooding, and increases in salinity in some areas.

Welch says he crabs in what he calls the intermediate marsh. “It’s where life just excels,” he says. “This marsh is the lifeline for the seafood industry. It’s where shrimp and crabs breed and where young crabs grow up. But it’s not like it used to be. It’s changed so much it’s unbelievable.”

This part of Cameron Parish used to be a hub of activity centered around trapping, commercial fishing, and the oil industry, Welch says. His grandfather built a house here in 1898. In the 1970s, Welch’s father and a handful of other volunteers started the area’s first DU chapter. But the area is much different today. “A lot of the older people have moved on. The younger ones struggle. I’ve watched a lot of people come and go,” he says.

To combat the continuing disappearance of these vital habitats, Ducks Unlimited and its partners are rebuilding land through the construction of marsh terraces (also known locally as “duck wings”) that help trap sediment and turn areas of open water back into marshland. DU also continues to do a large amount of water-level management and salinity control projects in the area. “The DU duck wing projects have turned out to be a pretty good thing,” Welch says. “They build them and then a year or two later you look out and say, ‘Man, that looks pretty good.’”

Even with the ongoing conservation work along the coast, Welch worries about what the future might hold. “The Gulf is a sleeping giant,” he says. “It does what it wants, and you can’t stop it. People take a break, but Mother Nature never takes a break.”

Based at DU national headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, Executive Editor Eric Keszler writes regularly for Wetlands America and Ducks Unlimited magazines.