Overview of the New Report on Protecting Wetlands

On wet, spring nights across the Northeastern United States, wood frogs and salamanders go on the march. These amphibians spend most of their lives buried in forest undergrowth, but they need to breed in watery places where no fish will eat their eggs. So they migrate to vernal pools – ponds that form during the wet seasons and range from a few feet to several acres across. If all goes well, their offspring will hatch and grow large enough to breathe air before the pools dry up in summer. Some species, such as fairy shrimp, spend their entire life cycles in the pools, leaving eggs behind that stay dormant through dry months and hatch when the pools reappear a year later.

Vernal pools are wetlands – areas where the soil is always or usually saturated with water and that support plants and animals adapted to moist conditions. Many states protect vernal pools because they provide habitat for rare animals. For example, in Massachusetts it is illegal to dump materials into state-certified vernal pools, install septic systems nearby or cut down more than half of the trees within a 50-foot radius.

Other wetlands play similar roles. Estuaries (mixed salt- and freshwater zones where rivers flow into the sea) are among Earth’s most productive ecosystems.

“Shallow marsh channels are important habitat for fish,” says Doug Myers, science director of People for Puget Sound, a Seattle conservation group. “Chinook salmon rear their young in estuarine deltas, coves and lagoons in the Northwest. And birds migrating along the Pacific Coast stop to feed along the mud flats.”

Many wetlands that are far from coastlines also are important. For example, lakes carved by glaciers across the upper Midwest, known as prairie potholes, are critical breeding and nesting areas for millions of ducks, geese and other waterbirds.

Until the 1970s Americans widely regarded wetlands as swampy places that were useless unless they could be drained or filled in. Before settlers arrived, the continental United States contained more than 220 million acres of wetlands. Today less than half of that area (107 million acres) remains. Some of America’s most famous and valued wetland areas, such as Florida’s Everglades and Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, are also its most degraded.

For the past 20 years policymakers have tried to prevent more net losses of wetlands. President George W. Bush raised the bar in 2004, arguing that the United States could achieve net annual increases by creating and restoring more acres than it developed. But environmentalists, outdoor advocates and regulators say that not all wetlands are equal, and that more action is needed to protect and restore high-quality wetlands.

“We see a lot of threats to wetlands around Puget Sound, including urban growth, shoreline development and polluted stormwater runoff from paved areas,” says Myers. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.” Nutrient pollution from farms (excess fertilizer and animal waste) and septic systems washes into lakes and bays nationwide, generating huge algae blooms that deprive aquatic organisms of sunlight and dissolved oxygen.

And many advocates fear that recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings limiting federal jurisdiction over wetlands have made some more vulnerable to development.

Wetland protection affects a range of industries that often excavate or drain land, including commercial and residential construction, agriculture, mining and energy. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, when a project involves dredging or filling in the “waters of the United States” – a category that includes many wetlands – a permit must be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps then must consult with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has veto power over permit decisions.

This process can be lengthy and expensive. A 2002 study of 103 permit applications found that the average general permit for lower-impact activities cost $28,915 to prepare and took 313 days to gain approval. Individual permits for higher-impact projects cost $271,596 on average and took more than two years. Developers who proceed without permits face civil penalties of up to $32,500 per day and criminal penalties up to $50,000 per day plus three years in prison.

Many trade groups say they support reasonable wetlands protection but that current standards are too broad and the permitting process too cumbersome. “While [the permits’] environmental purposes are laudable, they do add to the cost and delay the completion of the public and private infrastructure that literally forms the foundation of our nation’s economy,” Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen E. Sandherr told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in July 2007. Contractors, growers and other such groups would like to see the Corps and EPA eliminate or limit federal protection for small, isolated and temporary wetlands.

But environmentalists argue that destroying wetlands could end up costing the country much more, because wetlands provide billions of dollars worth of ecological services that benefit the public. Often referred to as “nature’s kidneys,” they filter out pollutants from water and trap suspended particles. They also absorb flood waters and release them slowly, like natural sponges. According to one estimate, wetlands cover less than 3 percent of Earth’s surface but provide up to 40 percent of annual, renewable ecosystem services such as purifying water and cycling nutrients.

After Hurricane Katrina caused at least $125 billion in damages along Louisiana’s Gulf coast in September 2005, several studies indicated the storm surge would have been lower if large swathes of coastal wetlands had not been obliterated by Mississippi River flood-control projects and coastal oil and gas development. In 2007 Louisiana approved a master plan for protecting and restoring its coast that, if fully funded, is expected to cost more than $50 billion and take up to 30 years to complete.

Since the 1980s regulators have used a process known as “mitigation” (preserving, enhancing or creating wetlands to compensate for destroying others) as a tool to balance wetland conservation and development. Initially, owners who wanted to fill in wetlands had to do mitigation projects on the same site or nearby. To make the process more flexible, however, agencies developed mitigation banking, in which developers buy credits from a wetland “bank” (acres restored by a third party) to compensate for acres that they drain or alter.

The National Mitigation Banking Association, a trade group, calls mitigation banking “a unique concept . . . that unites sound economic and environmental practices.” But skeptics say the process often helps developers rather than maximizing the quality of U.S. wetlands.

“If a developer fills in wetlands for an urban project and restores something 50 miles away, flooding may be caused in the city where the wetlands used to be. There’s no net loss of wetlands, but you have a big loss of [ecological] value” says Jon Kusler, associate director of the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM).

To view the entire report on CQ Researcher Online, click here. [subscription required]

To buy a PDF of this report, click here.


Jim C said...

Wetland banks are a very important tool in endeavoring toward "No net loss of wetlands". However,in the article an important point is made regarding vernal pools.
The same can be said of any intermittant or year around swales or drainage, especially in the Pacific Northwest where lowlands along the Columbia River and around Puget Sound that otherwise would have been wetlands were drained by early pioneers. Thus, in areas such as here in southwest Washington remaining farmland often is criss-crossed by arrow straight ditches that may or may not be intermittant.
Research from the University of British Columbia and other colleges in Washington and Oregon has shown that these slow water areas are critical for juvinile salmonids. Thus, when a quarter of the bodyweight of these salmonids (such as coho salmon, some steelhead and cutthroat trout) and a third of the juveniles that make it to the Pacific Ocean rely on the very existence of these intermittant and year around drainages, it makes consideration of filling, culverting or removing these very real resources in favor of wetland banks a matter that has to be carefully weighed, since we may be talking about apples and oranges if the bank is some distance from these drainages or is not connected to a drainage or creek that flows into a salmon bearing stream.
So while wetland banks fill a much needed void to promote larger tracks of wetlands to the betterment of most wildlife, we cannot shortchange salmon populations by seeing banks as a replacement for the drainages, both small and large in any watershed that has salmon bearing streams.

Wetland Mitigation Guy said...

The correct URL for the comments from jimc is



Jim Comrada