Reprioritizing Wetland Protection Through Sequencing

Now, more than ever, aquatic ecosystem components continue to be the primary water resource targeted for development.

Wetlands serve to protect, enhance, and maintain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the aquatic ecosystem. They are crucial to the maintenance of safety and welfare for human health and all associated environmental components.    

Wetlands are vital to sustainment of water quality integrity through protection of physical and chemical properties within aquatic ecosystems. They provide for a nutrient rich benthic substrate, which is a vital contributor to wetlands' role in water quality restoration. They also help to regulate temperature, salinity patterns, and other key parameters involved in maintenance of water quality integrity.

Now, more than ever, aquatic ecosystem components continue to be the primary water resource targeted for development. More specifically, proposals to impact wetlands are growing increasingly common. Far too often, wetland impacts are regarded as routine and necessary when planning proposed work within these highly vulnerable aquatic resources. The environmental value of these biologically active ecological assets has yet to be realized.  

A hallmark of wetland protection is adequate sequencing of alternatives prior to presentation of any mitigative strategies for offset of impacts. Proper sequencing should include avoidance, minimization, and mitigation.

Proponents should first seek to avoid impacts to these federally protected resources. Once avoidance has been given proper consideration, proponents should then seek to minimize their impacts, to the maximum extent practicable. This includes an analysis of any and all alternatives necessary to limit wetland impacts. This should also include careful consideration of the no action alternative as well as an evaluation of locations that are not classified as wetland areas. The National Environmental Policy Act requires extensive evaluation of impacts on federally protected environmental resources prior to approval of any proposed work.

After avoidance and minimization are comprehensively analyzed and considered, a decision as to whether mitigation will be required can be determined. If mitigation is necessary, the replacement value should be in kind and ecologically beneficial, enhancing the resource in both structure and function.

Economic Impact
With new initiatives that push usage of mitigation banks, proper consideration should also be given to the spatial and temporal character of the wetland area being analyzed. Consequently, the functional appropriateness of mitigation banks, in association with certain types of wetland impacts, has yet to be clearly established. Research and analysis examining the qualitative and quantitative value of mitigation banks -- functionality, with regard to replacement of an impacted wetlands lost ecologic value -- is very limited. Replacement value and relevance of mitigation banks not within logical proximity of the wetland area being impacted (e.g., watershed, eco-regions, etc.) should be more extensively evaluated.

Another factor weighing heavily on proper sequencing of alternatives for wetland impacts is economics. While cost-benefit analysis should be considered during preliminary site evaluations, this analysis should not be the primary determinant for site location. A supposition as to whether economics are a driver for ecological impacts is often echoed from those who value our natural resources. Placing economic loss over human health and the environment could have huge implication.

Regulations and federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972, are currently in place to provide protection to the integrity of wetland resources; however, as with any regulation, proponents’ interpretations are often open to subjective and sometimes biased viewpoints, which sway towards the direction of proponents’ envisioned goals. Such bias results in propositions that deviate extensively from the preferred and required sequencing methodology -- presenting an upfront and implied mitigation plan, with no considerations given to avoidance or minimization; only mitigation. For many entities, the cost of mitigation is far more beneficial than the cost of choosing a different project site.

Consideration of appropriate sequencing strategies with regard to wetland impacts is pivotal to the safety and welfare of human health and the environment. Proposals that recommend impacts to wetland resources should be vetted through the appropriate avoidance, minimization, and mitigation alternatives analysis prior to commencement of any activity having potential to threaten the integrity of our vital wetland ecosystems.