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)|
|Cumulative total number of approved mitigation banks, from 1995 to 2014. (Institute of Water Resources, The Mitigation Rule Retrospective, 2015)|
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.