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

The Wetland Wanderer: Protecting Nature’s Sponges from Stormwater Pollution

by Brenda Zollitsch

Over the last year, the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) and its partners have opened a dialog about wetlands and stormwater management with the well-documented understanding that stormwater pollution frequently flows into wetlands in ways that can threaten ecosystem health.  EPA defines stormwater as “runoff that occurs when precipitation from rain or snowmelt flows over the ground.”  Stormwater can pick up debris, chemicals, dirt, and other pollutants and flow into a storm sewer system or directly into a waterbody, including wetlands.  brenda25151Sediment can destroy aquatic habitats. Excess nutrients lead to algal blooms. Bacteria and pathogens can degrade wetlands. Debris can injure or kill wildlife. Household hazardous wastes can pollute water and poison aquatic life.

The costs of stormwater runoff across the United States are extremely high. Costs included are those associated with flooding, public infrastructure and private property damage, degradation of water quality (both clean-up and protecting from contamination), loss of fish and wildlife habitat, loss of recreation opportunities, and closure of shellfish harvest areas and other marine resources.  Costs are born at the municipal, state and federal level.  By many, stormwater is seen as an intractable problem with an unsustainable price tag….including costs from impacts to wetlands.

When I first started writing about stormwater and wetlands here at ASWM, I received several emails that expressed deep concern about even opening this conversation.  The argument – wetlands should be protected from stormwater at all cost.  ASWM agrees wholeheartedly that wetlands need protection from stormwater.  While we are exploring opportunities for wetlands as part of integrated management techniques (in keeping with the work underway around the country such as the Staten Island Bluebelt), we are seeking to better understand how to protect natural wetlands from stormwater pollution.  Stormwater runoff flows into wetlands whether or not we channel it there.  Consequently, part of this national dialogue needs to focus on ways we can protect wetlands from stormwater.

While some wetlands are in within EPA-designated Urbanized Areas (UAs) and subject to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Stormwater Phase I and II regulations, the vast majority of wetlands fall outside of these areas.   Wetland managers at all levels of government can benefit from the knowledge gained by working to protect urban water resources from stormwater runoff.   In our current study of state wetland programs across the United States, we have identified only limited integration between state wetland and stormwater programs in a few states.  Additional investigation on stormwater here at ASWM has indicated there is a decided disconnect between wetland and stormwater managers around the language, technical background and justifications for this work.

Understanding what can be done to protect wetlands from stormwater within the existing framework of stormwater management efforts is a good starting point. Each of the practices listed below are within the ongoing vernacular and management toolbox of stormwater managers.  We share the following potential practices as an opening discussion point.  The vast majority of stormwater management work occurs at the municipal/local level.  For this reason, I lead with examples of municipal practices or projects that states can encourage through their wetland and water resources programs:

Examples of Municipal-level Practices to Reduce Stormwater Runoff to Wetlands:

  • brenda2515-2Encourage soil stabilization near wetlands or areas that drain to wetlands, including on construction sites
  • Conduct illicit discharge inspections for all outfalls to wetlands
  • Restrict discharges of untreated stormwater into natural wetlands
  • brenda2515-3Work with planners to install swales instead of curbs and gutters along streets
  • Incorporate wetlands into watershed and stormwater education projects
  • Post signs to identify wetlands, buffers and wetland drainage areas
  • Stencil storm drains that lead to wetlands with “No dumping, drains to wetland”
  • Enforce no dumping rules for wetlands and buffers
  • Conduct wetland, stream and roadway clean-ups that keep trash out of wetlands
  • Strictly enforce thresholds that trigger erosion and sediment control plans in areas that drain to wetlands
  • Employ best management practices that reduce chloride runoff  to wetlands from municipal snow and ice control activities
  • Encourage low impact development (LID) and green infrastructure that reduces runoff quantity
  • Require septic system inspections and repairs
  • Allocate municipal stormwater utility funds to support activities that reduce stormwater impacts to wetlands

 Examples of State-level Practices to Reduce Stormwater Runoff to Wetlands:

  • brenda2515-4Include consideration of wetlands in stormwater planning projects
  • Strengthen construction rules at the state-level to limit impacts to wetlands from construction site runoff
  • Restrict discharges of untreated stormwater into natural wetlands
  • Enforce existing erosion and sediment control in wetland areas and areas that drain to wetlands
  • Increase erosion and sediment control requirements for the rainy season
  • Develop/strengthen existing dumping rules for wetlands and their buffers
  • Work with state planners and restoration experts to restore pre-development hydrology in areas near wetlands
  • Facilitate regular communication and planning between wetland and stormwater managers
  • Coordinate permit review  between wetland and water quality programs
  • brenda2515-5Promote low impact development (LID) and green infrastructure to reduce runoff into wetlands
  • Incentivize the replanting of open or turf areas  and site designs that protect wetlands from runoff
  • Support the use of 319 funds to reduce stormwater runoff to wetlands through planning and restoration projects
  • Develop buffer protections around wetland areas and increase buffer widths to protect downstream wetlands
  • Encourage minimization of the number of wetland crossings in construction site designs
  • Include wetland protection in floodplain planning and requirements
  • Encourage the reduction of lawn care chemicals and pet waste entering watersheds that drain to wetlands

As we continue to address the growing challenges of stormwater pollution, wetland managers and advocates should be thinking about ways to apply effective best practices for reducing stormwater impacts in ways that protect and improve wetland health.  Finding common languages and practices to start the conversation is critical to promoting integration.  We would love to hear other ways you have seen integration occurring in ways that protect wetlands from runoff and any lessons learned!

For more information about stormwater impacts and wetlands, check out the following resources:

To learn more about stormwater pollution, click here.

To watch a video about stormwater runoff, click here.

Protecting Natural Wetlands from Stormwater, click here.

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