By and large, the ASWM website is geared for wetland professionals. In addition, the Association often fields questions from other groups such as concerned citizens about a potential development project in their community that affects wetlands, or teachers who want to educate their students or communities about the value of wetlands. If you are looking for information that affects state policy, click on the section for "I am a Legislator." If you are looking for information about wetlands education, click on "I am an Educator." If you are concerned about a wetland in your area, click on "I am a Landowner" or "I am a Concerned Citizen." If you are looking for volunteer opportunities in wetlands, also check out the Vernal Pools Resources section under Wetland Science and look at our Events Calendar for wetland activities happening throughout the country.
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The wetland hub. Wetlands are connections and transition points between land and water. Whether adjacent to lakes, streams and oceans, or in shallow depressions that may only hold water for a portion of the year, they are a natural and necessary part of water cycles and aquatic habitat. Wetlands protect public health and well-being through critical functions including flood storage and stormwater management, water quality protection, recharge of drinking water aquifers, and provision of fish and wildlife habitat. At the same time, the majority of wetlands are on private property, and as such are subject to the desires and management decisions of property owners, — or public land management agencies. Wetlands are therefore central hubs in a web of concerns about land use, water management and the environment.
Wetlands provide a number of public benefits — or “ecosystem services.” The temporary storage of flood water in wetlands can significantly limit property damage, and the gradual release of stormwater that is naturally stored in wetlands replenishes groundwater aquifers, and maintains the flow in streams during dry seasons. Wetlands also provide a significant buffer against the impacts of powerful storm surges, reducing the damage from hurricanes and similar natural hazards. The filtering of sediment and other pollutants through wetlands helps to protect downstream water quality, and to protect coastal areas.
In addition, wetland ecosystems are among the most biologically productive landscapes on the planet – typically surpassing the annual production of plant material on even the most fertile farmlands. As such, they support both commercial and recreational production of fish, shellfish and game animals. The diversity of plants and wildlife in wetlands is very high —many of the nation’s rarest species depend on wetland environments.
Balancing public benefits and private property rights. The need to balance these well-documented public benefits, and the desire of private property owners to use wetlands for agriculture or forestry, or to convert wetlands to uplands to support residential or commercial development, has generated tension regarding wetland regulation, protection and management. Given the traditional role of states in both land and water management, state legislatures have a number of options available in helping to achieve an appropriate balance.
Wetland permit programs seek to support this balance. State and federal regulatory professionals assess the public impacts of proposed alteration of wetlands, and recommend measures to avoid or minimize adverse impacts. Even though most regulated projects are relatively small, and the vast majority of permits are issued, the review of permit applications avoids unintended consequences while considering the additive effect of multiple small wetland losses.
For example, construction in a wetland may be shifted out of a critical floodway, or may be scaled back to avoid the unintentional flooding of neighboring property (a common consequence of wetland fill). Wetland crossings may be redesigned to include culverts that will provide an adequate flow of water, thereby avoiding erosion, drying of downstream waters, and the cost of replacing a poorly designed crossing. Wetlands that are essential for fish and wildlife habitat can be avoided through cooperation with resource management agencies.
National Conference of State Legislatures – August 2012
Why should policymakers care about restoring and protecting floodplains? This is a difficult question for many state legislators because the emphasis in floodplain management usually has been on protecting property owners from potential flood damage through structural projects that keep water out, rather than on limiting development in floodplains and preserving the environmental and property protection values that floodplains possess. There are two policy sides to the issue—hazard management and protection of natural, beneficial functions. For full policy brief, click here.
Historically the protection, restoration and stewardship of wetlands began with state and local initiatives. Although there is now a strong national regulatory program administered by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, states continue to play a key role in wetland management. States are typically considered to have primacy in issues related to land use and wildlife management, as well as public trust responsibilities in state waters, and may use many different approaches to achieve state goals.
State programs may be regulatory, non-regulatory, or both. General information for both types of programs is summarized below. Some additional references:
- Larry Morandi, National Conference of State Legislatures
- Jon Kusler, Association of State Wetland Managers
- USEPA, Office of Wetlands Oceans and Watersheds
State regulatory options About 20 states have developed permit programs that may be completely independent from Section 404, but are more often coordinated with federal agencies to limit duplicative requirements. Operating a state regulatory program is beneficial for a number of reasons including
- Maintenance of state control over water and wildlife resources
- Assured attention to those resources that are of particular interest to the state – e.g. habitat for species that are locally rare, wetlands that have cultural significance, wetland adjacent to state preserves, wetlands that provide local flood protection
- Provision of a faster permit response than federal permit programs – if the state enters into an agreement to coordinate with the Corps of Engineers, federal permitting may also be expedited.
States have a great deal of flexibility in defining the extent of state regulations, and the extent of state-federal cooperation. State-federal regulatory cooperation generally falls into the following three categories (see hyperlinks for additional information, and state case studies for each option).
- Section 401 Water Quality Certification. Under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act a federal agency cannot issue a permit or license for an activity that may result in a discharge to waters of the U.S. until a State or tribe has granted of waved 401 Certification. This provision includes actions by any federal agencies but is most often applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Section 404 permits and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for hydropower license. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act prohibits the Corps of Engineers from issuing a dredge and fill permit until it has obtained certification from the impacted state that the project will not violate state water quality standards, or associated regulations. Many states use this process as a means of reviewing proposed Corps permits, and providing state conditions for permits that are issued. This option is available to all states, regardless of whether state wetland regulations have been put in place.
- State Programmatic General Permits. In a number of states, the Corps has issued a Programmatic General Permit that essentially relies upon a state’s decision with regard to a regulated activity for specified wetland impacts; the Corps permit may be issued with limited or no direct Corps review. This reduces duplication, and can significantly expedite the permit process — in some cases reducing the time typically needed for approval of smaller projects from several months to several days.
- 404 Program Assumption. This option gives approved states primary responsibility for dredge and fill permits in all waters except for traditionally navigable interstate commerce waters (e.g. tidal wetlands, major freshwater systems such as the Great Lakes and large rivers, and adjacent wetlands). Most dredge and fill projects in states with assumed 404 programs do not require a Corps permit — that is, the state permit provides authorization under Section 404. However, EPA provides program oversight, and the agency may comment on some categories of applications.
ASWM is actively working with the states and federal agencies to improve wetland permit processes. Click here for additional information.
Non-regulatory options State may decide not to regulate wetlands directly in light of cost, lack of public support, or other state priorities. However, many states (including those with and without permit programs) actively engage in other types of wetland management to provide significant public benefits – including protection of drinking water, avoidance of flood damage, protection of water quality, and protection of habitat for fish and wildlife. ASWM has compiled detailed summaries of state wetland programs – prepared by state staff – that may be useful in comparing states in a region, or those with similar resource management concerns
Active state wetland programs often include one or more of the following activities:
- Watershed planning: State and local government agencies, NGO’s, and landowners may cooperate in management of land and water within a river basin or watershed. They may use a variety of tools to evaluate past wetland loss and current wetland values, and to help set priorities for wetland restoration or stewardship, all based on local concerns and goals. For more information, click here.
- Monitoring and assessment: Wetlands provide a variety of functions, but not all wetlands are equally important to the public. Scientists and managers have developed a range of wetland assessment methods that help to objectively define the functions and benefits that are provided by various wetlands.
Like other waters, wetland habitat may also be degraded by pollution or land use activities. State wetland monitoring programs help to define the condition of the state’s wetland resources, and to track changes in the quantity and quality of wetlands over time. Click here for additional information on monitoring and assessment methods.
- Wetland restoration and stewardship Voluntary restoration and protection of wetlands is a win-win approach broadly supported by government agencies, NGOs, and private landowners to improve habitat, protect water quality, to meet other water management goals. On a national basis, the majority of wetland restoration has been carried out in partnership with landowners in rural areas primarily to improve waterfowl and wildlife habitat – often with financial support to the landowner from USDA and USFWS programs, along with technical support from private organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.
Increasing attention is also being given to the restoration of wetlands to meet water quantity and water quality management goals. Restoration projects may be small, local volunteer efforts that pay major dividends in a local watershed. There are also many examples of large national efforts – such as Everglades restoration, protection and restoration of freshwater marshes in the Mississippi River delta, and restoration of Great Lakes coastal wetlands.
Click here for a state by state list of links to wetland restoration activities.
- Outreach and education One of the most effective approaches to wetland management may be better education of the public, and increased reliance on sound land management by private property owners. Numerous materials are available to assist in educational projects, from basic wetland science in K-12 programs, to more technical materials for landowners, local planners, and watershed managers. For more, click here.
State legislators may be faced with a range of questions about wetlands – what are they, how are they being protected for fish and wildlife, what is their role in flood management? Public concerns are equally likely to focus on the manner in which wetlands on private property are regulated – by state, federal, or local government. Development of polices that balance the protection of wetland resources and their public benefits with the needs of landowners, transportation planners, and other development interests can be challenging.
The information on this webpage has been compiled specifically to assist State legislators and their staff in understanding some of the most common public questions and policy issues related to wetlands. The short articles provided include basic information about wetlands and their importance, and summarize how various states manage these resources. Information regarding current wetland issues provides a brief introduction to the question at hand, as well as links to more in-depth sources of information either on our website or elsewhere.
ASWM is committed to the effective exchange of information among scientists, wetland managers and policy-makers. If you have a question or if you would like us to address a particular issue, please let us know by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Association of State Wetland Managers would like to thank the Orchard Foundation for its generous support in making these webpages possible.