A new approach to protecting America’s wetlands and streams

 

“The agencies (USACE, EPA and DSL) have a history of working together on mitigation issues, particularly through the Interagency Review Team. We are each committed to streamline the permitting process for our customers,” says Dana Hicks, Mitigation Specialist Oregon Department of State Lands. (Photo by Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Office)

“The agencies (USACE, EPA and DSL) have a history of working together on mitigation issues, particularly through the Interagency Review Team. We are each committed to streamline the permitting process for our customers,” says Dana Hicks, Mitigation Specialist Oregon Department of State Lands. (Photo by Diana Fredlund, Public Affairs Office)


By Michelle Helms, Public Affairs Office, and Julie Curtis, Public Relations Manager, Oregon Department of State Lands

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District Regulatory Branch is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon Department of State Lands to develop new ways to measure and compensate for impacts from development in streams and wetlands. The partnership also is building a new framework for accomplishing the mitigation that is required by both federal and state wetland fill permits.

Whew! Sounds complicated, you say? That’s because it is complicated. For many years the Corps and DSL have required developers to mitigate for unavoidable impacts to wetlands based on the number of acres impacted. While not always a one-to-one ratio, required mitigation has been based on acreage: permittees must replace the impacted acreage on-site or off-site, through buying “credits” from a mitigation bank, or by paying into a fund for larger mitigation projects within the same watershed. This means that a person impacting a high functioning wetland and a person impacting a low functioning wetland have had equal mitigation requirements under the current program.

Wetland scientists have learned over the years, though, that the lost functions of impacted acreage would be better replaced by functional mitigation as opposed to merely restoring wetland acreage.

“From a resource perspective, this focus on replacement of area also means that we are losing, or at least trading, functions provided by our rivers and wetlands on the landscape,” said Dana Hicks, Oregon Department of State Lands mitigation specialist.

Because of new federal mitigation standards adopted in 2008, the Corps and other regulatory agencies are changing how they look at impacts to the nation’s wetlands and streams, and how they set mitigation standards for permit holders. In doing so, the agencies are meeting the regulatory requirements of the Final Compensatory Mitigation Rule and accomplishing the goals of the Clean Water Act to protect the nation’s aquatic environment.

What does a wetland do? The Environmental Protection Agency says wetlands clean the water, recharge water supplies, reduce flood risks, and provide fish and wildlife habitat. Learn more at http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/. (Photo by Michelle Helms, Public Affairs Office)

What does a wetland do? The Environmental Protection Agency says wetlands clean the water, recharge water supplies, reduce flood risks, and provide fish and wildlife habitat. Learn more at http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/. (Photo by Michelle Helms, Public Affairs Office)

“The 2008 Mitigation Rule aims to help us fix the track record of mitigation,” said Tracie-Lynn Nadeau, environmental scientist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10. “We are working together to develop tools and a new science-based mitigation framework that are transparent, practical and easy to use.”

This approach is science-based and certainly complex, but not impossible. Jaimee Davis and Judy Linton are the Corps regulatory specialists working with the EPA and DSL to figure all this out.We asked them about the challenges and changes of this new requirement.

CSP: In a nutshell, what are you doing?

Jaimee: We are striving to create a Compensatory Mitigation Framework that is science-based, but is also rapid and repeatable; it has to fit into the regulatory context and be a useful tool for the public.

Judy: Part of the Compensatory Mitigation Framework will include a stream function assessment methodology that will allow the regulatory agencies to determine the health of a stream ecosystem.

Editor’s note: Mitigation for impacts to Oregon streams currently is not routinely required. In 2009, state statutes were approved to required compensatory mitigation for impacts to all waters of the state, not just wetlands.

CSP: What do you want people to know about compensatory mitigation and the benefits of a functions-based program?

Jaimee: Under our current system, functions are not adequately replaced and so those functions continue to be lost. In a function-based approach the impacts (of wetland loss) will be lessened by more appropriate replacement.

CSP: Why is it important to work with the EPA and DSL on this?

Jaimee: The Corps and the EPA developed the Final Compensatory Mitigation Rule. It requires us to evaluate what functions would be lost and to determine appropriate compensatory mitigation that would offset those lost functions. Since EPA helped write the Mitigation Rule, they have an interest in how we adhere to the regulation.We needed to work with DSL because they often require compensatory mitigation as part of their Removal-Fill program; we want to make sure our requirements are aligned for resource protection, and so applicants wouldn’t be expected to “double-mitigate.”

CSP: Will this change the way Corps regulators review permits?

Jaimee: Yes. Regulators will need to learn how to use and interpret the assessment methods for wetlands and streams. They will then be able to determine if the mitigation an applicant has proposed is appropriate and if it adequately mitigates for the functions that would be lost.

CSP: Will aligning the processes for these three agencies make the permitting process easier for people applying for a Corps permit?

Judy: An applicant should be able to use the framework to develop one compensatory mitigation proposal that will satisfy both state and federal permit requirements. There may be times when the Corps has specific requirements for mitigation not shared by another regulatory agency.

CSP: What will these changes mean for the environment?

Jaimee: Wetlands are extremely important resources (see “What does a wetland do”) and an acreage-based system, while simple, does not fully mitigate wetland impacts. Historically, it has been difficult for us to require stream mitigation, because we didn’t have the tools to measure the functions being impacted. We often fell back on requiring riparian plantings, no matter the type of impact. We all knew this was inadequate and now we will have the tools that will get us better environmental outcomes and help us do a better job at protecting our Nation’s aquatic resources.

CSP: How will you implement this new standard and how will you work with permit applicants to make sure they understand this new mitigation framework?

Judy: Each agency is identifying specific steps they will need to take before requiring the use of the framework in the permitting process, and to make sure all users have a good understanding of it. Steps will include the opportunity for public review and comment on the framework prior to implementation and outreach to our stakeholders once the framework is ready for release. The agencies are working together to determine the best way to reach out to the greatest number of people.