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

The Compleat Wetlander: Is it time for a National Stream Mitigation Action Plan?

This Christmas Eve will be the 10th Anniversary of the National Mitigation Action Plan.  A decade after its creation, more recent activities, principally the 2008 mitigation rule, have consigned the plan to some metaphorically dusty tomb of the internet archives. But in its day the plan was a central and highly visible part of the nation’s evolving wetland policies.  It provided an overall framework for the development of national wetland mitigation policy.   The actions outlined in the plan were pursued aggressively by the federal agencies and many of those products are embedded in current national policy.

Stream mitigation was not a major part of the plan.  There is one action on page 5 directing federal agencies to clarify consideration for mitigating impacts to streams in the Section 404 program.  At that time most impacts to streams, filling, impounding and channelizing, were compensated with wetland mitigation.

Not so now. Since 2002 more and more states and Corps Districts have developed formal policies for mitigating stream impacts with stream mitigation.  But much work needs to be done.  While significant progress has been made, policies vary from one area of the country to another, and there are gaps.  In fact the current status of implementation of stream mitigation is very similar in some respects to the status of wetland mitigation in 2002.

The Association of State Wetland Managers has a project underway to collect information on the status of state stream mitigation programs around the country and there is a very strong sense of déjà vu when states discuss the issues they are wrestling to develop stream mitigation programs and policies.  For example:

What counts as mitigation? Is stream mitigation bank stabilization?  Is it only buffer protection or does it include in-stream work as well?  In the early days of wetland mitigation there was a lot of focus on enhancement and protection which evolved to place greater emphasis on wetland restoration.

How should out-of-kind mitigation be addressed? Some streams flow year round (perennial) and some flow part of the year (intermittent and ephemeral).  If a perennial stream is impacted is it ok for the mitigation to occur on an intermittent or ephemeral stream and vice versa?

Wetter is not better. Historically the public has always had an easier time understanding that wetlands that held water year round were important. Wetlands that are dry part or much of the year were, and still are, often perceived as less important. Scientific research has determined that both types are extremely important.  However, the same issue exists for streams. The public has an easier time understanding that a stream that flows year round is important than understanding why intermittent and ephemeral streams merit the same level of protection.  Here too, science indicates that intermittent and ephemeral streams are very important.

Is creation feasible? Wetland restoration has generally been preferred over wetland creation because hydrology is key to success and a wetland restoration site, at least historically, had the required hydrology.  There is greater scientific uncertainty regarding whether wetland creation will be successful. The same is true for streams.

Different issues. However streams are much different than wetlands and mitigation for streams poses some very different challenges.  For example:

  • Wetlands may get wet and dry out, but they are stationary—they don’t move around. Streams are not.  The energy of water running down a stream can cause it to change its channel and move laterally particularly in the drier West.  Mitigation that anticipates lateral movement is challenging.
  • Dredge and fill activities often destroy a wetland entirely: impacts to streams are more likely to involve partial filling and/or relocation raising different issues.
  • The footprint of impoundments and reservoirs can cover 100s and 1000s of feet of streams.  How and where should the stream loss be mitigated?
  • Wetland mitigation success can be compromised by activities on the adjacent land (its nearby watershed).  Streams can be degraded by activities near the project sight but streams are linear as well and consequences on one section of the stream may be carried far downstream often due to the energy associated with water flow. More water leads to increased erosion, down cutting, flooding etc. Reduced flows also have consequences. Alternatively mitigation activities at a project site can be compromised by actions going on upstream.

What the National Mitigation Action Plan Accomplished – The plan identified states and tribes along with the federal agencies as essential partners in developing national mitigation policies.  This was important and federal/state/tribal discussions improved many of the products as well as the commitment to using them in the field.  Following publication of the plan, a number of guidance documents were developed and posted to the federal mitigation action plan website.  When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to pursue rule-making on mitigation, activities associated with the mitigation action plan declined and eventually ceased altogether.  However, products of the National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan formed the basis of much of the final mitigation rule.

The mitigation rule, like the plan that preceded it, does not fully address many of the challenges associated with stream mitigation.  A national stream mitigation action plan developed along the same lines as the wetland mitigation plan could provide a framework for addressing the issues describe above and many more.  Like the earlier plan, the participation of states and tribes will be essential to success.

Stream mitigation policy is important. The Section 404 program issues tens of thousands of permits each for streams each year, particularly in the West. For example in Montana over 90% of the Section 404 permits issued are for activities affecting streams.  The present is an ideal time to pursue a National Stream Mitigation Plan.

For additional information:

Compensatory Mitigation for Losses of Aquatic Resources; Final Rule:

Mitigation Action Plan:

National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan Fact Sheet:

Mitigation Banking Factsheet: (A history)

National Research Council, 2001.  “Compensation for Wetland Losses Under the Clean Water Act,” National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.,

The Compleat Wetlander:  Wetland Mitigation Then and Now

Compensatory Mitigation:

Technical Resources for Stream Mitigation:

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One Response to The Compleat Wetlander: Is it time for a National Stream Mitigation Action Plan?

  1. John Dorney says:

    Excellent points. I could not agree more. NC has long been a leader in stream mitigation and a more comprehensive, national look is timely as long as it recognizes and retains the good things that have been done (and there are plenty of those!) and works to avoid the not so good things that have been done.

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