Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

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by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst

Over the last three years, ASWM has conducted studies focused on better understanding various attributes of state wetland programs and both state wetland and stream-related policies and practices.  These efforts have manifested themselves in two major reports – State Definitions, Jurisdiction and Mitigation Requirements in State Programs for Ephemeral, Intermittent and Perennial Streams in the United States and Status and Trends Report on State Wetland Programs in the United States.  These projects have specifically focused on developing national comparative reportsanalyses and have laid the foundation for longitudinal studies of trends over time.  Rigor has included building on a foundation in policy theory, implementation of research best practices, and strong attention to creating replicable research designs with consistent measures designed to allow for analysis between and among states.  While it’s not critical to understand what goes into creating these national studies, I always find it useful to know the background and inner workings of research I use.  This blog provides insights into how we think about our research and what goes into developing our comparative studies.  Through these efforts, ASWM strives to create a better understanding of the complex factors and relationships influencing wetland programs, policy implementation, and policy outcomes.

Anchoring Analysis in Public Policy Theory

waubesaAs we approach studies of wetland and stream policy, we have looked not only at the literature on wetland management, but also on public policy theory.  Public policy theory can explain a range of topics, from how decisions are made to who has power and how they exert it.  ASWM’s recent studies have been grounded in what is called policy implementation theory.

Policy implementation theory works to explain specific dimensions that influence a policy’s ability to produce results or impacts, including cost, feasibility (e.g.  state capacity to implement), and the acceptability of certain policies by relevant stakeholders (both those affected by the policy and those tasked with implementing them).  The literature on policy implementation has emerged in many stages with the goal of explaining who has influence on how policy is implemented.  Is policy implemented top-down from federal government to state and local government?  Is it the street-level bureaucrats that really control what happens?  Or is it a hybrid set of ongoing interactions influenced by context?   This has led to consideration in our research of both federal and state influences and measures that capture the range of those influences.

Using Qualitative Research to Identify the Breadth of State Wetland Program Characteristics and Development

When conducting our research, we have focused in these recent studies on understanding the breadth of state program capacities to implement wetland and stream regulations at the state level.  We have looked at the components of regulation — Who is responsible for different parts of the regulatory process?  What controls exist for the state program?  What limitations do they have in terms of staffing and funding to enforce the controls they have?  This research not only helps identify needs, gaps and opportunities for supporting these programs, but it also contributes to implementation theory.  It demonstrates the challenges that the state context provides for the national implementation of Clean Water Act sections §404 Dredge and Fill and §401 Water Quality Certification programs, as well as other Clean Water Act programs that protect wetlands in different ways (e.g. Clean Water Act Section §402).

coloradoparksTaking on the Task of Measuring and Comparing Diversity

As ASWM approached the 2014 Status and Trends/State Summary Project, the organization’s policy analysts already knew they faced tremendous diversity based on previous state summary reports that had been conducted in regular intervals since the 1980s by both ASWM and the Environmental Law Institute.  The question became how to measure and compare this diversity in a meaningful way.   ASWM relied on a national project workgroup to help determine measures to use building on existing literature, past state summaries and the practical usefulness of the measures for informing state wetland programs and those who support them.  In the applied research world, the usefulness of the research is paramount.  The workgroup included ASWM analysts, representatives from state wetland programs, US EPA, wetland nonprofits, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The workgroup decided to build data collection first around the EPA’s ESTP four Core wetlandmonitoringElements Framework, a set of essential components for state wetland programs to protect state wetlands.  Measures for each of these core elements were developed and vetted by the workgroup, building on previous state summaries and key measures in the literature (both gray and peer-reviewed).  The workgroup essentially “groundtruthed” the proposed measures.  This process not only strengthened the methodological components of the research, it also ensured that the information that was collected would be useful to people making decisions about program development, determining what models and practices could be borrowed from one state for use in another and identifying where capacity building is most needed and feasible at the state, regional or even national level.

Findings of Vast Diversity in State Wetland Programs Begs the Question “Why?”

On April 8th, I presented the findings of ASWM’s Status and Trends Report at the Midwest Political Science Conference in Chicago, Illinois.  The paper I presented (still in draft form) discussed our findings in the context of contributions to implementation theory.  The conference session discussant repeatedly commented on his surprise at the diversity of state wetland program types and capacities, wondering where these differences came from.  Our project focused on measuring the breadth of characteristics and how these compare between and among states.  But this does beg the question “Why?” as well as “how does this capacity change over time?”

southcarolinaWhile ASWM’s research to date does not answer this question, other research on wetland policy and management provides clear insights.  Studies show that state wetland programs have emerged from a range of origins.  Some states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut had internal regulations in place before the Clean Water Act was enacted.  In addition, state regulations can be based on statutes related to navigation, water pollution, protection of wildlife habitat and other provisions of state law.  In California, for example, the state regulated its waters long before the Clean Water Act was enacted. Today, the state’s regulatory program must balance requirements in its own Porter Cologne Act with requirements of the Clean Water Act.  ASWM’s recent findings are not surprising.  Connecting the dots between these studies would be a fascinating future undertaking.

Applied Research: Designed to Inform Decision-Making

northfolkTo date, the ASWM’s Status and Trends Report has been used by states, regional wetland groups, federal agencies, nonprofits, university researchers and consultants to identify both what is happening in individual states and the status of state wetland programs across the country as a whole.  Project products include a national comparative analysis report and fifty state summaries that provide a rich baseline of information about the diversity and range of state wetland programs and practices across the United States. These are being used to further inform other findings and initiatives.  One example is the opportunity to provide insights to the findings from the forthcoming 2011 National Wetland Condition Assessment Report.  The status of state wetland programs within an NWCA study “ecoregion” has relevance to thinking about how state and federal agencies can help address areas of the country where the largest amount of wetlands are found to be in poor condition.

Next Steps: Analysis over Time and Answering New Questions

In addition to the findings of the Status and Trends study, the study has opened the door to many more questions that remain unanswered.  Findings on each core element, climate change work by state wetland programs and integration activities between wetland programs and other state water programs all lead to additional research questions that would likely benefit from deeper analysis.  How can quality of implementation be measured for each core element?  What level of implementation is adequate?  How do states with limited resources implement regulatory requirements? What efforts to transfer a policy or practice from one state to another are more likely to be successful?  The report itself includes a final section on recommendations for future research.

carIn addition, ASWM is interested in looking at how wetland programs change over time.  One opportunity under consideration is to pursue support for development of a formal longitudinal dataset (a dataset designed to capture the same specific measures of state wetland programs over time).  This would allow for the formal tracking and analysis of trends.  To date these trends have only been captured in an informal way and few inferences can be drawn.   Working with statisticians, state wetland program staff and a range of stakeholders, ASWM would be positioned to develop robust study designs and employ statistical analysis.  Taking into formal consideration what researchers call “confounding variables” and a variety of explanations for findings, specific research questions could be explored, including how the implementation of wetland regulations changes over time, which variables may influence these changes, and what impacts specific initiatives may have on state wetland programs.

We welcome your thoughts regarding research that ASWM should consider to provide theoretical, methodological, or analytical insights to our work, as well as any research questions you think would benefit state and tribal wetland programs.  We also encourage you to check out our research reports and products, which are available on our website at

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Wetlander's Pick of the Posts Breivogel habitat restoration video

By Tom Biebighauser – Wetland Restoration and Training, Inc.– April 21, 2016 – Video

Posted in Vernal Pools, wetland | Leave a comment

View from the blog-o-sphereWhen Beach Nourishment Kills

By Lily Strelich – Hakai Magazine – April 20, 2016
In 2012, the San Diego Association of Governments and the United States Army Corps of Engineers dumped 1.76 million cubic meters of sand onto eight eroding county beaches. Replenishment projects like this are meant to bolster the coastline for human needs, but adding millions of cubic meters of sand to the shoreline has a big effect on local wildlife. And according to a recent study of the project, the negative effects of beach replenishment on coastal ecosystems seems more extensive than previously thought. For full article, click here.

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For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Last week I had the privilege of vacationing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was a bucket list trip for me – one I’ve wanted to make my whole life. As a child, I grew up taking vacations with my family that were jam packed full of activities – our time was spent going from one historical site to another with very little opportunity to stop and smell the roses. I begged my parents to take us to a beach resort stthomas1somewhere where we could just relax for a week. I finally got my wish – somewhat – when we went to Australia after my high school graduation. My mom signed up for a conference with the International Reading Association in Sydney, so we made a 3 week trip out of it and traveled from Cairns to Sydney and out to Ayers Rock.

While we were there, I had an experience of a lifetime – I got a quick crash course on scuba diving and got to dive the Great Barrier Reef. It was the most amazing experience and the beauty of the coral reef and sea life was mind blowing – so many colors and alien looking creatures. The immense diversity of life was humbling. My freshman year of college I decided to get PADI certified, but I did not have another opportunity to see any coral again until I went to Thailand with the San Francisco State University’s Wildlife Extension Program my senior year.

stcrispinsreefI went there to study the impacts of tourism and development on Thailand’s culture and environment for my senior thesis. While there, I had the opportunity to do some extensive snorkeling in the Andaman Sea off the southwestern coast. Once again, the colors of the corals and the immense diversity of sea life were extraordinary. But even then, they were worried about the health of their corals from the impacts of snorkelers who insisted on standing on and abusing the coral reefs, from destructive blasting practices by fishermen, and from the raw sewage that the resort towns poured directly into the ocean. That was in 1992 and the researchers that I interviewed at the Phuket Marine Biological Center were already sounding the alarm about the dire outlook for the future health of their coral reef ecosystems.

Fast forward to last week. I had not had an opportunity to go diving or snorkeling since my trip to Thailand in 1992. Although my vacation on St. Thomas and St. John was truly enjoyable and I would love to go back again, I was deeply dismayed by the condition of the coral on both islands. On St. Thomas I got recertified for diving by “Aqua Amy” at Coki Beach. She was a true gem. When I told her where I worked her eyes lit up and she said “Oh good – now that I know you understand and care about the corals, I’ll show you a project being done by the local university to try to regrow Staghorn coral. They haven’t been by to check it much lately but I measure the growth for them anyway.”

staghornSo we dove around the reef area surrounding Coki Beach and she showed me the university’s project. It was a very small project and I’m dubious if it will work, but who knows – you can’t blame them for trying. I witnessed corals that had no color and that were scarred by illegal anchoring activities by a local paddle boarding company and other boaters. Very little sea grass was present although there was some great sea life and a Parrot fish that decided it was my diving buddy for a while. Two days later, I traveled to St. John and went snorkeling at Maho Beach. The sea grass was much healthier there and supported a small community of sea turtles, but the coral was once again white and scarred; not teeming with life like the ones I had witnessed in Australia and Thailand more than 25 years ago.

I returned from my vacation relaxed but with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Without further research I cannot say exactly what has led to the poor health of the islands’ corals, but I imagine it’s a combination of failing septic systems, stormwater runoff, destructive boating and fishing practices, and the newest threat – climate change. Coral bleaching has become a tremendous threat to coral health around the globe, most prominently now at the Great Barrier Reef, and is most commonly a result of corals being stressed by unusually high water temperatures. I just read an article yesterday in the Washington Post that said Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force has found bleaching in 93% of the 911 coral reefs they surveyed by air. The article also states that “based on diving surveys of the northern reef, they already are seeing nearly 50% coral death.”

bleachedcoralAlthough the U.S. definition of wetlands does not include coral reefs, the international Ramsar definition does. And according to NOAA, “coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment.” They are basically underwater rain forests; chock full of some of the most amazing diversity of life in the entire world. A 2015 fact sheet I found from Ramsar states that 75% of the world’s coral reefs are at risk and 10% are damaged beyond repair. And in certain areas of the U.S. and abroad, coral reefs and mangroves live in a symbiotic relationship, meaning that if the corals are unhealthy, the mangroves are unhealthy. It’s a domino effect that does not have a happy ending.

As I write this, it is April 22nd – Earth Day. So For Peat’s Sake, although corals are not technically defined as wetlands in the U.S., they are in most other areas of the world. So I encourage you to embrace the importance of the world’s coral reefs and do what you can to protect what we have left. Our coastal communities and islands that we love to vacation on depend on it.

Posted in biodiversity, climate change, coastal wetlands, earth day, global warming, Ramsar | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wetlander's Pick of the Posts Amid dramatic sea level rise, nature itself can provide a much-needed solution

By Shannon Cunniff – Environmental Defense Fund – April 7, 2016
Even if we manage to reach our goals for reducing greenhouse gases, the world will experience a dramatic sea level rise by 2100 – the latest study estimates by as much as six feet. With a water level that much higher than it is today, major coastal cities such as Boston, New York and Miami are sure to be below sea level. So the key question now is, how do we adapt to climate change effects we can no longer avoid? For full blog post, click here.

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View from the blog-o-sphereCitizen Science, Environmental Outreach and Water Quality

By Ibrahim Goodwin – The EPA Blog – April 13, 2016
Spring is here, the eaglets in the Anacostia River Basin have hatched and so has another opportunity to make a visible difference in our nation’s watersheds. Here in DC’s Anacostia watershed, EPA and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) are working together as part of the Anacostia Watershed Outreach and Education Initiative. We’re encouraging citizen science field research with ECC members, students and others. We test for water quality parameters like pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, phosphates, nitrates, salinity, and we’re analyzing samples for aquatic macroinvertebrates (water bugs you can see with the naked eye that are important indicators of water quality). For full blog post, click here.


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cwlogoBy Jeanne Christie

The Association of State Wetland Managers, Inc. is an organization that began life in a chicken coop—well actually it was a converted ‘winterized’ chicken coop–but a chicken coop all the same.  It resided in this “repurposed” building behind the home of past Executive Director Dr. Jon Kusler, Esq. in Berne, NY, for well over a decade.  In 2002 the ASWM main office was moved to a barn in Windham, ME which belonged to the new Executive Director, yours truly, Jeanne Christie. In true Maine contractors041416fashion the barn was (and is) connected to the house and the part where our offices resided was also ‘winterized.’

In 2010, ASWM moved across the street from the barn to a small business park providing opportunity for growth, but in the last couple years, space has become increasingly tight with the addition of new staff.  However, as of this week, all that has changed. We now have room to grow!  We are very grateful to our building manager Fred Kinney and our general contractors Tim Curran and Jay Spruce as well as the last minute contributions of Brent and Chris from SystemArchitecture who stepped in to address some unanticipated challenges related to phone and internet wiring. I’d like to also thank the ASWM staff who provided ideas to help us design the expansion and were very patient as we continued to operate at our chrisbret041416offices through all the changes.  Finally, I’d like to thank the Association of State Wetland Managers Board for supporting us throughout!

But it’s not enough to tell you about this; we want to show you. So here is a before, during and after video to show what’s been happening here over the past six weeks.  Special thanks to Dawn Smith for working her video wizardry to create something to share.

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View from the blog-o-sphereThe Deepening Story of How Climate Change Threatens Human Health

By Gina McCarthy, John Holdren, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, and Kathryn Sullivan – EPA Connect Blog – April 4, 2016
Climate change poses risks to human health through many pathways, some more obvious than others. Rising greenhouse-gas concentrations, driven by human activities, result in increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. These climate-change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the climate-related risks to human health will continue to grow.For full blog post, click here.

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Wetlander's Pick of the Posts Cape students help create vernal pools in Falmouth and Chatham

By Doug Fraser – Cape Cod Times– April 5, 2016
The backhoe operator rested the knuckle of the big shovel on the peaty turf at the edge of a sand and clay pit.
He leaned out the window and waited as Thomas Biebighauser helped Jaiden Wiles, a seventh grader in science teacher Melinda Forist’s class, extend a fiberglass “stick” upwards from the center of the pit until a sensor on the tip detected the beam of a laser from a surveying instrument in the woods, and started beeping. Biebighauser, a recently retired wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, explained how the laser helps ensure they were digging the 40-foot diameter hole to the 24 inch depth required to attract the right woodland species to two vernal pools they were creating on land adjacent to the Monomoy Regional Middle School in Chatham. For full story, click here.

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by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst

I traveled to Rhode Island this week to spend the day with professionals from a variety of backgrounds talking about the intersection of amphibians, habitat and stormwater wetlands.  The meeting I attended was framed as a “Stormwater and Amphibians Roundtable” and drew scientists, regulators, land trust managers, teachers, nonprofits and even a zookeeper.  The movement to promote green salamander040816infrastructure across the nation to manage runoff and reduce nonpoint source pollution creates an opportunity to explore other benefits or challenges that arise from new construction and restoration activities to create more natural-looking stormwater management infrastructure. Here is what I learned from the discussion.

To set the stage for group discussion, the convener of the group, Greg Gerritt, arranged for a number of presentations from several experts.  Scientific evidence on a variety of research on amphibians, constructed wetlands and the impact of stormwater pollutants on rare amphibian species was presented by two Providence College professors — Dr. Jonathan Richardson an evolutionary biologist and Dr. Nancy Karraker from the Department of Natural Resources Science, who both conduct research that informed our discussion.  The following are interesting tidbits that I learned from these presentations.  (Note: If you are interested in getting citations for this research, contact me at and I can send you more information and/or connect you with the presenters directly):

sal040816There are limited studies connecting constructed wetlands and amphibians.  Those looking at these links have shown that leading predictors of amphibian diversity and persistence are hydroperiod, canopy coverage and the upland habitat surrounding the pond/wetland.  Other variables for consideration include depth, log area, and habitat fragmentation.

sal040816Creating habitat to equally welcome all amphibian species is not viable.  Various amphibian species will thrive in different (and contradictory) conditions.  This means that when planning amphibian habitat, decisions need to be made about which amphibian(s) the habitat is being designed for.

sal040816Because amphibians have two different phases in their life cycle — one where they live in the water and one on land — the land adjacent to the wetland/pond is critical to their lives as adults.  Restoration or planning activities should consider this larger habitat when planning to support amphibian communities.

sal040816Studies comparing constructed and natural wetlands have shown that constructed wetlands are more likely to have higher pH, greater presence of invasive species such as Phragmites and Duckweed, and higher levels of light infiltration, all of which are threats to many of the more rare amphibian species.

sal040816While connectivity among natural ponds has been shown to be critical for amphibians, little research has been conducted on the role connectivity plays in constructed pond/lake habitats.  Connectivity issues should still be considered in constructed habitats.

sal040816The most critical challenge of constructed wetlands/ponds that gather stormwater is the presence of toxicants.  While some species can evolve and develop tolerance, rarer species such as the spotted salamander and the wood frog have not been found to adapt to these conditions.

sal040816Studies have explored the impacts of road generated contaminants including road deicing salts (including MgCl, CaCl, and KCl), metals (copper, aluminum, zinc, lead and cadmium), nitrogen and phosphorus, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The most impactful of these pollutants for rare amphibian populations has been shown repeatedly in studies to be deicing salts.  Chlorides have been found up to 175 meters from their road source, often finding their way into wetlands that are not perceived as impacted. Impacts included degraded water quality in ponds used by amphibians for reproduction, reduced reproductive success, lower survival of eggs into hatchlings, the inability of juvenile amphibians to complete metamorphosis, and negative impacts on growth and development.

sal040816Some of the research conducted by Dr. Karraker found (what I would refer to as “disturbing”) common malformations in hatchlings exposed to elevated levels of chloride (high conductivity waters).  These included kinked tales, abdominal ademas, and what she called “circle salamanders” — hatchling salamanders misshapen into crescents and only able to swim in circles as the membrane of their eggs did not expand properly due to a lack of absorption of water due to the presence of chlorides. Additionally, egg clutch sizes were smaller when collected near roads where salt was applied.  Timing of amphibian species metamorphosis is in the early to mid-summer, when chloride concentrations are highest as water volume lowers.

sal040816Dr. Karraker also found that metal pollution impacted amphibian survival to multiple life cycle stages, including hatching, metamorphosis, growth and development.

sal040816Despite these findings, some researchers have posited that there may be some role for stormwater basins/wetlands to serve as habitat for amphibians where no habitat at all currently exists, especially in urban settings.

Framed by this background information, the roundtable participants then launched into discussion about the viability of creating amphibian habitat from constructed water bodies.  As you can imagine, the dialogue that followed about developing stormwater ponds/wetlands for amphibian habitat toxins040816was animated.  Here are some of my takeaway thoughts from our discussion.  Integrating stormwater management with development of habitat for rare species is a laudable aspiration.  A presentation at the roundtable by staff involved in Providence College’s stormwater master planning effort shows that the opportunities to create beautiful ponds and wetlands that treat stormwater are both real and cost-effective

However, there are potential unintended consequences from well-meaning efforts to find breeding grounds in developed areas for these creatures.  These may include:

  1. The inability to protect amphibians (and other organisms) from toxins and other pollutants such as excessive sediment and temperature;
  2. Challenges in regulatory control since currently constructed wetlands designed for the purpose of stormwater treatment are not regulated by state and federal environmental agencies — but wetland habitat within jurisdictional control is.  When a constructed wetland is designed as habitat in addition to stormwater treatment, regulatory waters are muddied; and
  3. Serving as population sinks for rare amphibian species — stormwater wetlands/ponds, if not placed and constructed taking amphibian populations into consideration, may serve as population sinks for rare species.  While intending to serve as habitat to support frogs and salamanders, instead they could be damaging or reducing population numbers.

woodfrog040816It is easy to see why it makes sense to explore whether or not there is a way to capitalize on these efforts.  With the growth and promotion of green infrastructure, finding ways to create multiple benefits from limited resources is important.  However, we must tread carefully.

Next steps include exploring the possibility of inventorying existing populations of amphibians in current stormwater ponds and wetlands; additional research on impacts; and working on identifying examples of demonstration sites or studies where stormwater management and amphibian habitat have been harmoniously created.

Rhode Island’s state regulators and research scientists raised deep concerns about moving too quickly to promote the joining up of these two areas of work that are shared by the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM). However everyone around the table, including ASWM, is open to exploring new ideas and finding circumstances where this kind of work would be beneficial.  One such possibility is establishing clean or pretreated stormwater wetlands as habitat.

As we explore these engaging and complex topics, we always love to hear your thoughts.  If you have any experience, studies, or ideas about this topic, please send them to me at .

Posted in constructed wetlands, stormwater, stormwater pollution, wetland regulation, wetland restoration, wetlands, wood frogs | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
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