The EPA plans to make wetland mitigation good business
Texas has lost 60 percent of its inland wetlands over the past 200 years, outpacing the country at large, which lost 50 percent of its wetland acreage in the same period. But proposed federal rules could create a small boom in the wetland-banking industry, a system of third-party providers that builds and restore wetlands to replace those destroyed by development. Some states, such as Maryland, have reported an increase in wetlands since the banking industry began a decade ago, but critics charge that replacement wetlands tend to be built in rural areas, even when the impact has occurred in urban settings.
Inland Texas wetlands, though smaller and more isolated than coastal estuaries, are nonetheless crucial to the ecosystem. Frogs, toads, salamanders, insect larvae, and fish live and feed in wetlands, while ducks and other migratory birds use wetlands to rest and feed during their annual travels. Wetlands filter pollution, recycle nutrients in air, water, and soil, and provide flood protection.
The Environmental Law Institute published a study in March that argues wetland mitigation banking redistributes wetlands from town to country, leaving cities and suburbs more prone to flooding and erosion, and poorer in wildlife habitats. Texas is losing thousands of wetlands on the Katy Prairie near Beaumont through development, for instance, and water from filled-in wetlands will eventually find its way into urban Houston, says Rollin MacRae, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department program leader for wetlands conservation.
“If we do away with them, the water will come after you. The more wetlands you lose, the faster that water will move,” warns MacRae.
MacRae is skeptical of the pending rule.
“It never comes out right when they are proposed,” he says, because damaged wetlands present a Humpty-Dumpty scenario. “It’s hard to restore a wetland. You have to figure out the original elevation, where the water came from, what kinds of plants lived there,” he says. “Sometimes it takes nature a long time to put together what she’s got in mind. It can be taken apart in days with an aggressive bulldozer driver.”
Texas’s current wetland mitigation program was developed during the 1990s with a focus on wetlands in the Galveston area. MacRae says the Texas guidelines have become national guidelines. Under current Clean Water Act requirements, the Corps and the EPA review developments that will impact wetlands. Any development, such as altering a creekway path, building a bridge, or installing a sewage pipe, requires a permit. For example, when the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant on the South Side built a parking lot, a nearby creek was affected, and a mitigation permit was required. (At press time, Toyota officials had not responded to a request for information about its mitigation project.)
“`The proposed rule is` pretty much how we do business right now,” says David Madden, a biologist assigned to the regulatory department of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District. “This is not a new concept to the Corps at all.”
“First, we try to avoid impacting a wetland,” says Madden, “and if not, we try to minimize the impact to the waterway. If we can’t avoid that, then we get into the mitigation.”
He adds, “We try to get mitigation as close as possible to where the impact is.”
The EPA contends that the new rule contains safeguards that ensure replacement wetlands will be created in the same service area as any lost acreage. It also enforces the same standards for wetlands projects completed by the developer and by mitigation banks. The latter has been held to a stricter — and more costly — standard, making it a less-appealing option.
Mistrust of the new rule may be fueled by a recent announcement by Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton that the U.S. actually had a net increase in wetlands between 1998 and 2004. The report was roundly criticized for counting golf-course water hazards and small man-made ponds as wetlands. Fore!
The proposed wetlands rule is open for public comment until May 30, and the new rule should go into effect about a year later, says the EPA’s Dale Kemery. To comment on the proposed rule, visit epa.gov/wetlandsmitigation.
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