US advisory panel urges tougher protections for wetlands

The US National Research Council said Tuesday that a federal program that allows developers to fill wetlands in exchange for restoring or creating others should be improved to meet the goal of no net losses. Congress is expected to use the report during its review of the wetlands program.


By the OGJ Online Staff

WASHINGTON, DC, June 27 -- The US National Research Council said Tuesday that a federal program that allows developers to fill wetlands in exchange for restoring or creating others should be improved to meet the "no net loss" goal.

The NRC committee said before granting permits to fill natural wetlands, regulators should give greater consideration to how restored or newly created wetlands can replicate the ecological functions of naturally occurring wetlands.

Congress is expected to use the report during its review of the wetlands program. Oil and gas operators must comply with that program when they drill wells or locate pipelines and plants in marshes, swamps, or bogs.

Joy Zedler, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, chaired the NRC committee. She said, "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."

The report noted wetlands are complex ecosystems that serve various functions such as improving water quality, controlling floods, diminishing droughts, and stabilizing shorelines. They sometimes contain rare or endangered species of plants and animals.

The report said before the ecological value of wetlands was recognized in the 1970s, they were often destroyed to promote agriculture, for construction, or to control mosquitoes. By the 1980s, the wetlands in the contiguous US were half their size of the 1780s.

Sec. 404 of the Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of soil and sand into wetlands unless authorized by a permit by the US Army Corps of Engineers or state programs approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The study noted if damage to wetlands cannot be avoided, the Corps requires permit applicants to restore, create, enhance, or preserve nearby wetlands as compensation in order to met the goal of "no net loss" of wetlands. The Corps and EPA have defined that as no net loss in acreage or ecological function.

The study said that although the annual rate of wetlands loss in the contiguous US dropped 77% in the decade from 1986 to 1997, the goal of no net loss is not being met.

It said, "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 committee to determine whether there has been no net loss of wetland acreage. From 1993 to 2000, about 24,000 acres of wetlands were allowed to be filled, and 42,000 acres were required as compensatory mitigation, meaning nearly 2 acres should have been gained for every 1 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 recognized as such under federal guidelines."

The panel recommended the Corps create a national database to track the wetland area and functions gained and lost and to encourage the establishment of organizations to monitor mitigated sites.

It said whenever possible, restoration of a natural wetland should be chosen over creation of a new one. It said some types of wetlands, particularly bogs and fens, cannot yet be restored effectively, so the agencies should not allow any part of them to be filled.

And the committee said 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.

It recommended that the permit holder give a stewardship organization, such as the Nature Conservancy, an easement on or title to the wetland site and funds for the long-term monitoring and maintenance of the site.

It may take 20 years or more for some restored or new wetlands to achieve functional goals, the committee noted.

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