by David Cavanaugh

The consensus, both in the lab and outside, is that wetlands are important for filtering pollutants from water, storing flood waters, and providing wildlife habitat. Floods of such magnitude that they qualify for federal disaster relief occur every 18 months in PA. However, we also think that agriculture and urban development, the two main destroyers of wetlands, are important too. The statistics reporting on trends in the loss of wetlands show that we're losing fewer wetlands, but it doesn't meet the "no net loss" mandate.

We have gone from a loss of 3 million acres between 1975 and 1985 to a loss of 1 million acres between 1985 and 1995. Today, that's about 117,000 acres per year. A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes it clear that the "no-net-loss" target of the Bush and Clinton administrations has not been met. Knowing what we know now, where do we go from here?

Decisions that affect wetlands of all types are primarily in the hands of city and county governments. These groups need to be proactive in managing wetlands in their jurisdictions by: 1) making a map and field inventory of wetlands; 2) creating a wetlands management plan; and 3) considering the creation of a mitigation bank (private or public); 4) understanding the potential of constructed wetlands, and 5) working with landowners and developers on a timely basis to waive stringent zoning requirements so that there are flexible development plans or sites with wetlands. The developer needs to understand both the short term and long term costs of impacting wetlands.

The inventory process will define what a wetland is and identify the location, type, acreage and condition of each wetland. With this knowledge, the effects of private development and agriculture can be measured and a land use plan can be implemented to maintain the wetlands targeted for preservation. (GIS data and the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) maps show local wetlands).

If local regulations are required, they should agree with the federal permitting process to avoid confusion and delays. Preservation funds can be used to purchase the most important wetlands.

Creating a public or private mitigation bank is another way of reducing wetland loss. One such example is the creation of a riparian buffer zone along a degraded stream corridor. When a home builder, transportation department or other entity is going to destroy a wetland, repairing or building a wetland in another location can offset the loss. Sometimes the developer is asked to purchase a credit for the same or greater acreage of restored wetlands as a condition of future development. These funds in turn can be used to purchase open land.

Another recent trend is the use of wetlands as treatment areas for storm water and wastewater from local government sources. This process cleans the water before it reaches waterways. Palm Beach, Florida is going a step further by testing a system that cleans the water that goes into the aquifer that the city taps for drinking water. A future vision is to have many such treatment areas in a city or suburban area serving clusters of homes. To the visitor it would look like a botanical garden lush and green all year. The waste water would circulate from area to area until it emerged crystal clear.

To take advantage of these advances, local governments must be proactive and nurture their relationships with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), EPA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (American City and County, November 1997)

Developers have also become sensitive to the wetlands issue. "Clustering" is typically used to provide buffers from wetlands areas and grading and storm drainage features are used to enhance wetlands protection and/or water flows.

Knowing more about wetlands and how to develop sensibly has helped alleviate some of the pressure on remaining wetlands. Increasing public pressure to preserve what we have is helping initiatives to purchase the most important wetlands, further easing development pressures. Wetlands help maintain biodiversity, and with our water cleaner than in the past, trends are positive for more sensitive development and better wetlands protection in the future. - Gary Brown

January/February 1998