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

The Wetland Wanderer: Whetting Your Appetite: 10 Interesting Findings from ASWM’s Nationwide Report on State Stream Identification, Delineation and Mitigation Practices

by Brenda Zollitsch

In May 2014, the Association of State Wetland Managers will release a study on the status of stream identification, delineation and mitigation in the United States.  Telephone interviews were conducted with staff from forty-seven states, collecting data on terms, definitions, practices, programs and needs.  ASWM’s final report provides an executive summary of findings, comparative tables, national maps and descriptive text for each study question, as well as data tables for each state in the accompanying appendices.  To entice you to read the full report when it is published, here are just ten of many more interesting findings from the report:

1. A Snapshot in Time for Stream Work

Stream mitigation is a relatively new practice and it is evolving rapidly. Stream mitigation is relatively new in most states across the United States.  Most programs and practices have been formed only since 2008, when the Army Corps of Engineers introduced new mitigation guidance.   Knowing that the findings will be out of date the minute it hits the Internet, ASWM designed the study to serve as a baseline for comparison, documenting the breadth of terms and practices used in an emerging field.  The report will provide descriptions of current guidance documents and tools that can be reviewed and adapted for use in other states.

2. What’s in a Name?

Because stream mitigation is new, there is immense diversity in the definitions and concepts that are used to describe stream mitigation work. Terminology differs extensively across the nation, with few terms consistently defined or interpreted between states.  For example, the terms “ephemeral stream” and “stream enhancement” elicit clear definitions from most practitioners and regulators.  These terms may even be defined in regulations or state statute.  However, when compared between states, these definitions were found more frequently than not to mean different things to different interviewees.

3. Applying Best Professional Judgment

Currently, many practitioners rely extensively on best professional judgment as their basis for making decisions about stream identification, delineation, assessment, mitigation, and evaluation.  When identifying bed and bank, evidence of flow, selecting which activities to approve in a mitigation proposal or looking at whether the mitigation has been successfully completed, practitioners do not have an established body of practices available and rely on best professional judgment.  While this does offer flexibility that some states insist is critical, it also points to the needs to invest in development of standardized practices in order to ensure that this judgment is well-informed through adequate training and education.

4. Finding Clarity

Most states report that they seek greater levels of standardization, transparency, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness for their stream practices. While BPJ may be the most common source of decision-making, they agree that clarity and structure is especially important to ensure that there is a consistent application of requirements and for legal defensibility of their decisions.  A number of states have evolving tools that can serve as basic frameworks for adaptation.  A few states argue against too much formalization, promoting the value of flexibility and discretion offered by less restrictive approaches.   A recommendation of the report is to work towards identification of adaptable tools, model language and case studies, to conduct analysis on effectiveness, and to share lessons learned.

5. Bracing for an Expansion

Most states predict a significant upswing in the number of permit applications if the economy improves. Whether a state is doing a lot, a little or a modest amount of stream mitigation work, there is agreement that a slow economy is likely keeping the number of dredge and fill permits and associated mitigation activities below normal levels.  Across the country, by far the largest number of dredge and fill permits are for infrastructure (transportation, development, utilities).  If a sharp increase in permitting applications occurs, accompanying resources and staff time will need to be allocated to address this change.  States and the Corps need to take this scenario into consideration in their long-term planning activities.

6. What Counts?

Across the United States, a wide variety of mitigation activities are accepted to offset stream impacts. Many states are willing to consider a variety of mitigation proposals, but the vast majority prioritize in-stream restoration, riparian/buffer work, hydraulic modification and enhancement efforts.  Some states also promote preservation.  There is less agreement about whether specific practices, such as cattle exclusion, are acceptable as stand-alone mitigation. Also, some states are starting to approve mitigation plans based on design to achieve functional uplift.

7. Getting Functional

Functional assessment is increasingly being integrated into stream mitigation decision making. While only ten states currently have functional assessment for streams in place, many more report that they want mitigation in their state to move in this direction. This trend is not uniform across the country, however.  There are states that feel strongly that functional assessment requires consideration of elements that are beyond the permittee’s control (i.e. upstream activities that impact the mitigation site).  Other interviewees identified challenges related to implementation of functional assessment, such as identification of which functions to measure, which metrics to use, how to combine them with other measures effectively, and how much uplift to require.

8. Avoid, Minimize — then Mitigate

Some states report little if any stream mitigation activity. In these states, they are usually either: a) focused on the first two tiers of the mitigation hierarchy — avoidance and minimization, b) a state with very few impacts on streams in their state that need to be addressed, or c) in the process of developing stream mitigation practices.   States that keep primarily to avoidance and minimization tend to be concerned about the message that a compensatory mitigation program sends, i.e. that it’s ok to impact a stream in the first place.   A related finding indicates that states vary dramatically on views about the potential for use of low impact development (LID) in minimization or mitigation project proposals.

9. Measuring Success

Few states have strong mechanisms and/or enough resources to adequately evaluate stream mitigation success In order to improve mitigation practices, it is important to look at the successes and failures of past stream mitigation projects and to determine what lessons can be learned from them.  In those few states where outcomes are actively reviewed, evaluation is seldom required for more than 3-5 years, a timeline that research has shown to be too short to determine actual success.   In states where there are less formalized practices and more limited resources, interviewees report that they often have to take the applicant’s word that mitigation was successful.  Consequently, mitigation success is poorly understood and lacks the necessary feedback loop needed to promote an evolution of sound stream mitigation practices.

10. Stream “Creation” is a Bad Word

No one reports doing stream “creation”, even though states use practices that look a whole lot like it. State interviewees indicate that none of them place streams where there has never been one before.  However, many do allow for stream relocation, increasing of sinuosity and other practices.  Most of these actions are considered by states to be stream enhancement activities. In a few states where mining is prevalent, streams are being “created” because the altered hydrology prohibits direct replacement of streams.  Many interviewees had a strong reaction to the word “creation,” with one interviewee going so far as to say, “Stream creation?!  That’s crazy talk?”  This begs the question – what is stream enhancement and what is stream creation?

Conclusion: To Strengthen State Stream Mitigation Programs and Practices, National Dialog is Needed

Perhaps the most resounding finding from this report is that stream mitigation practices are rife with diversity – diversity in terminology, definitions, interpretations, and techniques. Consistent definitions and interpretations, and the ability to develop practical best management practices that jointly address the unique circumstances of multiple states are needed.  This is further complicated by different regional environmental considerations, economic constraints and political priorities.  Interviewee’s desire for standardization, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness are coupled with a desire to identify and implement tools that can guide them.  Absent a national dialog to understand how these ideas compare across political and environmental boundaries, efforts to create best practices and templates will have limited success.  Having clear terminology and concepts will also help practitioners that are endeavoring to integrate stream and wetland planning with other interdisciplinary and cross-program work.  The report’s conclusions support future conversations about terminology, meanings, and practices, as well as access and support for training and support for the evaluation of mitigation success.

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