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

The Compleat Wetlander: Strategic Thinking on State Assumption of the Section 404 Program

Over the summer one of the main activities at the Association of State Wetland Manager’s offices has been writing a handbook on developing Wetland Program Plans.  I’ve concluded that a successful program planning effort needs to include three elements: long term planning, a strategic plan and strategic thinking.

What’s the difference?

A long term plan: is a plan to meet future needs identified by extrapolation of present or known needs.

A strategic plan: is a plan used to communicate with the organization the organizations goals and the actions needed to achieve those goals.

Strategic thinking is different and extremely important.  One of the great strategic thinkers in recent years is Wayne Gretzky, an ice hockey superstar.  He defined strategic thinking very simply.

“I skate to where I think the puck will be.”

This is what state wetland managers need to do.  Plans are good, essential even, but they generally cannot accommodate the sudden 180⁰ turns that occur in public policy when something unforeseen occurs.  In the past 12 months these have included:

  • Budget cuts from the ‘trickle down’ impact of sequestration
  • Supreme Court cases such as Koontz vs. St. John’s Water Management District
  • Hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires,  and other natural disasters
  • New practices that lead to degradation and/or loss of wetlands
  • Oil spills

Anyone who has worked in wetlands has encountered these and a host of other challenges that have instantly reordered priorities.  Gretzky understood the need to continually recalculate and anticipate where the future action would be.
Strategic thinking or “skating to where the puck will be” requires looking beyond the immediate playing field and thinking about reaching the ultimate goal.   One thing is certain.  There will be setbacks– maybe a lot of them.

And it’s not just the sudden changes that have to be accommodated.  There are other more subtle trends that are no less challenging for state wetland program managers.

The Clean Water Act was not designed to solve the nation’s very significant water pollution problems that are caused by polluted run-off and other kinds of nonpoint source pollution.  Over time solutions to nonpoint source problems will require states to proactively take actions that are beyond the scope of the Clean Water Act.

In addition federal agencies are becoming less able to provide tailored assistance to states. Budget cuts, lawsuits, increased reporting requirements and other pressures are resulting in changes in state/federal partnerships.  One example is the current proposal by the New England District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend the existing state-wide general permits in each of the six New England States and issue one general permit to cover all six states.  Regardless of the merits of streamlining and improving efficiency for the Corps, this is unlikely to be a positive change for the states because:

  1. Permit applicants will be confused and frustrated with the (for them) sudden changes
  2. They will not understand the difference between the federal and the state programs or who initiated the change.  They will blame each of the respective states because that is who they work with and talk to for the majority of dredge and fill permits.
  3. They will complain to elected officials.
  4. The state program will be viewed as the problem.

What’s a state wetland program manager to do?

I would suggest to “skate to where the puck will be” and that is State Assumption.

Here are the reasons.

Concurrent with the trends described above there has been an increase in the interest in State Assumption of the Section 404 program from states around the country.  Many states desire to have more autonomy in handling dredge and fill permitting decisions.  They are already implementing the rest of the Clean Water Act and nowadays adding Section 404 seems like a sensible step to an increasing number of State Secretaries of the Environment.  The issues of jurisdictional uncertainty and delays in permitting decisions could be addressed under a state program.  A true watershed approach to addressing persistent water quality problems requires the ability to include wetlands and regulate dredge and fill activity.   A state that has taken over the Section 404 program will also be able to permit and carry out large wetland restoration projects to address nonpoint source pollution and climate change adaptation.

There are very significant hurdles.  There are several reasons states have not taken over the Section 404 program and these have been well documented.  But if there were a half-dozen to a dozen states with a solid track record of running their own dredge and fill programs who simultaneously pursued assumption, it would be a lot more possible–

–Like having an entire team of Wayne Gretzky’s superstars working together and “skating to where the puck will be” to reach the goal.

For more information:

A Strategic Planning Process for Public and Non-profit Organizations

Sequester hits Restore Act funding for Louisiana other Gulf states

Special ASWM Webinar – Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District

The drought of 2012: An ongoing catastrophe along the Mississippi River – See more here.

Red Cross Responding to Flooding and Wildfires Across U.S.

Flood danger following wildfires long-lasting

7.2 Million Acres Of Wetlands And Fragile Land Go Under The Plow

ExxonMobil faces federal lawsuit over Arkansas oil spill

Enbridge begins new round of cleanup in Kalamazoo River from oil spill

New England General Permit (DRAFT)

§ 404 Assumption Fact Sheets

CWA Section 404 Program Assumption: A Handbook for States and Tribes

This entry was posted in Clean Water Act, dredge and fill, pollution, Section 404 Assumption, state wetland programs, wetland, wetland permitting, wetlands and natural hazards, wetlands regulation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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