Where have all the wetlands gone?... To Mitigation Banks!

Brooks Surgan is a candidate for a Masters in Coastal and Ocean Policy, and is set to graduate from the program this spring. He performed his undergrad at the Stony Brook University, earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Marine Science in 2012. Prior to his graduate career, he was an environmental consultant in New York for three years. He is now working for the North Carolina State Division of Coastal Management and continuing his passion for coastal environmental regulation.

The passage of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act in 1972 redefined the historical role the Army Corps of Engineers from civil and military development to environmental protection and restoration. This created a reliance on compensatory mitigation through mitigation banks to protect the environment, while still allowing for development and growth.

Mitigation banks are the preferred method by the Army Corps of Engineers to offset wetland impacts from development because they are a convenient way for developers to compensate for natural wetland losses. A developer simply buys the amount of wetland acreage that the Army Corps deems satisfactory from a mitigation bank, and uses that to offset the wetland impacts. The process removes the developer’s obligation or responsibility for the public’s wellbeing, and transitions it to the mitigation bank operators. The Army Corps has encouraged this mindset by consistently approving permits for impacts to wetlands, and authorizing compensatory mitigation from mitigation banks.

Number of authorization by compensatory mitigation source and permit type from 2010 to 2014. (Institute of Water Resources, The Mitigation Rule Retrospective, 2015)
The use of mitigation banks for compensatory mitigation is a growing trend over the last 20 years. Since the development of the 1995 Federal Guidelines for mitigation, the number of authorized commercial mitigation banks have rapidly increased from 77 to 1,428 in 2014, and now consist of 91% of all bank types.
Cumulative total number of approved mitigation banks, from 1995 to 2014. (Institute of Water Resources, The Mitigation Rule Retrospective, 2015)
The increasing trends in development and authorized use of mitigation banks threatens the existence of local wetlands and the functions they provide to the area. The wetlands targeted for mitigation provide local water storage functions, species habitat, and local water quality functions, especially those pertaining to non-point source pollution. Removing wetlands from throughout the watershed, and consolidating them in to banks at a different location within the watershed, has a severe impact on the function of the watershed. Without the large spatial distribution of wetlands, runoff carrying pollutants and bacteria will enter streams and rivers instead of filtering through wetlands, and may have serious health implications.

The use of mitigation banks also has social implications. Developers, the Army Corps, and Mitigation banks, create a closed system for the removal, relocation, and creation of wetlands within a watershed. The public does not have input to these decisions and bear the burden of lost localized wetland functions and social benefits. These functions include water storage, habitat, and runoff filtration, and improvements to air quality, urban heat absorption, and physical and psychological health of the community.

Current rules and regulations for choosing a mitigation site are vague and don’t contain the appropriate criteria for replacing natural wetlands. Creation, enhancement, and restoration rarely ever meet the same functionality, in terms of nutrient uptake, habitat, and diversity, of a naturally occurring wetland. It takes years to decades for mitigation projects to acquire the same functions of naturally occurring wetlands, and most of the time they never do. Army Corps mitigation policy should incorporate the loss of social benefits from removing natural wetlands, and develop more stringent evaluation criteria for replacing wetland function.


  1. I agree that it does not seem logical to "replace" wetland functions in one geographical region with wetland function elsewhere. Particularly because, as you have noted, there is still a net loss of wetlands within the watershed at large. Are there any environmental or citizen groups that have gotten fired up about this issue, here or otherwise? I consider myself to be at least passively aware of local environmental and water quality issues and have heard plenty about wetland losses, but never about the mitigation bank loophole. Maybe more local and NGO stakeholder awareness would help hold developers accountable to the real environmental services at stake.

  2. The thing that sticks out most to me for mitigation banks is that the public has no input. The local people are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of polluted waterways and storm damage when the wetlands are removed, so why do they not have input? I strongly believe public input should be part of the process. Like Hayley, I also assumed that environmental groups were upset by this problem, but maybe they are unaware because of the public input issue.

  3. Before reading this, I didn't know too much about mitigation banks, but it does seem troubling that they have a closed loop system for permitting the destruction of wetlands. Though people in the environmental field care about the destruction of wetlands, I wonder what the status is of overall public awareness. Do communities know all the ecosystem services that are lost due to the destruction? Would they care if they did know? Maybe outreach efforts could help with that if public awareness is low.

  4. Mitigation banks seem to be a good idea on the surface but the functionality and actual impact of these sites fail to serve their purpose. Wetlands, as we know, are some of the most important coastal resources, serving a wide variety of ecosystems services as well as human social and recreational uses. Perhaps as this issue is brought to light, more non-profit groups like Surfrider can become involved in protecting wetlands and requiring higher standards for mitigation banks.

  5. This particular issues is one that I learned a great deal about while I was in undergrad. In many of my environmental policy classes, mitigation banks were referred to as a classic example of environmental mitigation that faced corruption in the form of loopholes and vague regulations and wording. The core idea is good, but personally I believe it is a system that is set up to be taken advantage of. Adapting the rules and regulations to be site specific, and have specific language and criteria seems to be like a step forward in efficiently mitigating wetland loss.

  6. To avoid this closed system for developing companies, it seems that not only should social benefits be consider, but also, the public needs to be informed about the potential lost of wetlands and wetland functions due to a new development. Adding to that, you think it would be possible to find a mitigation bank within the same watershed as the one being built one. The Army Corps should also consider that in their evaluation.

  7. Before reading this post, I did not know much about mitigation banks. The concept is interesting and at the heart of the idea, it seems like a good idea. However, it seems to allow of the destruction of wetlands, which are an important resource. Mitigation banks should not be closed systems. The public should be able to have an input in what goes on in their surrounding environments, especially if the public's social interests are at risk. I agree that the Army Corp should incorporate the loss of the public's social benefits and develop more evaluation criteria for replacing wetlands. Every impact should be considered when a wetland is getting destroyed.

  8. I find it interesting that the Army Corps will let so many natural wetlands go seeing as they provide such an economic benefit. I wonder with the increase of 100 year flooding events across the country the Army Corps will change there mitigation plan all together. Hopefully, low impact development will be the trend for infrastructure so that less wetlands are lost all together. I agree that the current state of the corps policy needs to be changed.


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