The term “natural infrastructure” is interpreted broadly and had been used to describe many different types of infrastructure – from bioswales to living shorelines and from wet meadow restoration to removal of dams – and is often used interchangeably with the term “green infrastructure.” Some government agencies and non-profit organizations have developed succinct definitions for each, but more often than not, these definitions differ from one organization to another. One of the reasons for this is because the science and practice for the design and implementation of these types of projects is relatively new – particularly as tools for flood and hazard management – and we are in the middle of a steep learning process. Wetland and floodplain restoration projects have been implemented for over 25 years as a way to restore critical habitat and provide clean drinking water. But the interest in the development of these projects has risen rapidly over the past 10 years due to an increase in our knowledge about the functions of healthy wetlands and floodplains and their ability to provide multiple benefits, paired with a significant increase in extreme precipitation events, drought and impaired water quality nationwide.
For several years now, the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) has been hearing anecdotal stories about natural infrastructure projects that can’t quite seem to get off the ground. Most of these are voluntary restoration projects that face the same level of regulatory oversight as compensatory mitigation projects. However, the reasons for the development of a voluntary restoration project versus a compensatory restoration project are often very different. Compensatory mitigation is legally required to offset any losses due to damages or alterations of an existing wetland, whereas voluntary restoration projects are developed to improve an existing site. However, regulatory programs did not anticipate the rapid increase in the interest in voluntary restoration as a form of natural infrastructure and many requirements that were designed (and are necessary) to address potential issues for compensatory mitigation or for traditional hard infrastructure (building dams and levees), are often not a good fit for voluntary restoration projects and in fact, may result in unnecessary delays and expenses that can stop a good project even before it’s shovel ready.
During 2016, ASWM worked with the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) and the American Planning Association (APA), as a subcommittee of the Natural Floodplain Functions Alliance Steering Committee, to develop a workshop with the goal of addressing some of these barriers and identify opportunities to revise existing policies and programs to leverage natural infrastructure solutions. By October, we had added The Pew Charitable Trusts to our planning committee and on November 29, 2016 we held our workshop, entitled “Overcoming Policy and Permitting Challenges to Implementing Natural Infrastructure Solutions,” at The Pew Charitable Trusts headquarters in Washington D.C. with around 50 invited participants and speakers.
We had three speakers provide case studies that highlighted some of the barriers that they have confronted. Rob Evans, Vermont State Floodplain Manager, spoke about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirement for map revisions and floodway regulations that were problematic for a small local project (Cox Brook Dam Removal). He explained that the project was limited in impact, would result in very localized reductions in base flood elevations, and had no impact on insurable buildings. Additionally, the existing flood data was so old that the requirement to update all the data to produce revised maps was cost-prohibitive.
Next, Ted LaGrange from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission spoke about the challenges he faced in implementing a private lands riverine restoration project on a highly altered landscape that included filling a drainage ditch, mechanical excavation to remove invasive cattail and culturally-accelerated sediment, and installing a low-water crossing/rock check structure. He experienced a general lack of consistency and efficiency in dealings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) in regard to what was considered a complete Pre-Construction Notification (PCN), what type of wetland functional assessment was required and what was acceptable for wetland delineation. It took him about 14 months to obtain a Nationwide Permit #27 authorization, which for most farmers and ranchers is longer than they are willing to wait. Thus many opportunities for protecting and restoring wetlands and floodplains are lost.
The final case study was presented by Eileen Shader from American Rivers who spoke about their Shuford Dam Removal Project in Brookford, North Carolina. Like Rob, she also spoke about barriers created by FEMA’s out of date flood map data, in particular the need to “dumb down” more detailed local models in order to match the much older FEMA models. She also discussed the issue of requiring mitigation to replace acreage of wetlands that were formed by the dam after its removal even though the wetlands were never there historically. All of these issues need to be and can be addressed by FEMA and the ACOE through policy revisions.*
In the afternoon we heard from a federal agency panel that included Jennifer Moyer (Regulatory Program Chief, USACE), Cindy Barger (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Army, ACOE Civil Works), Nicole LaRosa (Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant Policy Branch, FEMA), Rick Sacbibit (Chief, Engineering Services Branch, Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, FEMA) and Maria Honeycutt (Coastal Hazards Specialist, Office for Coastal Management, NOAA and Technical Mapping Advisory Council Subcommittee Member). Each panelist provided their perspectives/reflections from the morning case studies and discussed ways in which each agency could possibly help improve the permitting process. Three primary themes arose from the panel discussion with workshop participants that rang true for all levels of government: 1) a need for sufficient funding and staffing, 2) a need for more professional training for everyone (regulators, wetland managers, practitioners, etc.), and 3) a need for improved communication between federal, state and local agencies/organizations.
The workshop was successful at bringing together a diverse group of organizations, sharing real world experiences, and identifying barriers and potential opportunities by all the various agencies and organizations that participated. Although we were not able to identify immediately implementable solutions in just one day, there was overwhelming consensus that this initiative needs to be continued. The NFFA Steering Committee is currently developing a strawman of actions to undertake in response to the workshop which we will continue to report out on throughout 2017 and beyond, so For Peat’s Sake, stay tuned and get involved with the NFFA. More information about NFFA can be found on ASWM’s website by clicking here.
*Progress Report Update: Since this workshop, the ACOE released the new 2017 Nationwide Permits for work in streams and wetlands under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. A new Nationwide 53 is included for removal of low-head dams. ASWM will be hosting a webinar on this new Nationwide within the next few weeks – information will be posted here once it is scheduled.