US governmental programme failing to protect wetlands

The US Government must improve its programme that allows developers to fill in wetlands in exchange for restoring or creating others nearby to avoid further loss in the size and function of wetlands, a new report says.

Compensating for Wetland Losses Under the Clean Water Act by the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, says that reforms are needed in the Wetlands Regulatory Program. Regulators should give greater consideration to how restored or newly created wetlands can replicate the ecological functions of naturally occurring wetlands and become a sustainable part of the larger watershed, before permits to fill natural wetlands are granted, the report says.

“A broader geographic area needs to be considered when deciding which wetlands to restore and where to place new wetlands so they continue to serve the ecological needs of the entire watershed and have a higher chance of long-term survival,” said report compilers Joy Zedler, professor of Botany and Aldo Leopold Chair of Restoration Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of soil and sand into waters of the United States, which include most wetlands, unless authorised by a permit issued under Section 404 of the act. Only the Army Corps of Engineers and some Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved state programmes can issue such permits, with the Corps requiring permit applicants first to steer clear of, and at least minimise damage to, wetlands. If unavoidable damage cannot be minimised, the Corps requires the restoration, creation, enhancement, or preservation of nearby wetlands as compensation for the damage. This ‘compensatory mitigation’ is intended to achieve the goal of ‘no net loss’ of wetlands that the White House called for in 1989, meaning no loss in acreage or ecological function.

From 1986 to 1997, the annual rate of wetland loss in the US decreased by 77% from the previous decade, and some of this decrease may come from developers being deterred by the Section 404-permit process, the report said, but at present, the goal of ‘no net loss’ is not being met, the report says. From scientific literature, expert presentations, and site visits, the committee found that some required mitigation projects are never undertaken or are not completed. Of those completed, most are not fully evaluated, and in the ones that are, the committee and other scientists found shortcomings compared to nearby natural wetlands. The magnitude of the loss of wetland function is not precisely known since not enough data are kept on the ecological status of wetlands that are lost or those that are restored or created.

Likewise, because of insufficient data, it was impossible for the report compilers to determine whether there has been no net loss of wetland acreage. From 1993 to 2000, about 24,000 acres of wetlands were permitted to be filled, while 42,000 acres were required as compensatory mitigation, meaning nearly two acres should have been gained for every acre lost. However, the lack of data prevented the committee from determining if the required compensation was ever initiated or if it resulted in wetlands that would be recognised as such under federal guidelines.

To better understand the efficacy of the mitigation program, the report says that the Corps should create a national database to track the wetland area and functions gained and lost and to encourage the establishment of organisations to monitor mitigated sites. It also recommends that, whenever possible, restoration of a natural wetland should be chosen over creation of a new one. Recent research has cast doubt on the effectiveness of artificially created wetlands in pollution control, and has found that one has actually contaminated a nearby popular beach resort (see related story).

The report emphasises that wetland restoration or creation will be most successful when properly integrated into the larger watershed. Current federal guidelines express a preference for putting new wetlands as close as possible to degraded ones, however this is not always the best choice, as creating new wetlands in areas with proper water levels and flow rates is the key to achieving a self-sustaining wetland that will stand the test of time, it says. Adaptive management practices should be followed, allowing changes to be made to the wetland based on results of early monitoring.

However, some types of wetlands, particularly bogs and fens, cannot yet be effectively restored, so the agencies should not allow any part of them to be filled, the report says.

Whether mitigation is carried out by the permit holder or a third party, restoration or creation of a wetland should occur simultaneously or before the filling of the natural wetland and according to established design criteria that are better monitored and enforced. To ensure long-term stewardship similar to that accorded to other publicly valued assets, like national parks, the party responsible should provide a stewardship organisation, such as a state agency or private organisation like the Nature Conservancy, with an easement on or title to the wetland site and funds for the long-term monitoring and maintenance of the site as it may take 20 years or more for some restored or new wetlands to achieve functional goals.

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