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Environmental Consulting

Wetlands 101

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Wetlands can be defined as, “areas that are inundated or saturated by surface groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.” Typical wetland types are marshes, bogs, and swamps, which are all extremely common in Pennsylvania. In fact, Pennsylvania has nearly a half million acres of wetlands throughout the state. Without a doubt, wetlands are common place, but that doesn’t mean they do not need to be preserved and protected. In fact, certain wetlands are so important they have earned a special designation called Exceptional Value Wetlands. Exceptional Value Wetlands are wetlands that exhibit characteristics that deem them worthy of special protections. Characteristics may include wetlands that maintain the habitat of an endangered species, wetlands located along an existing drinking water supply, or wetlands that are located in or along streams that have been shown to support the natural reproduction of trout.

Wetland maintenance and restoration not only helps to keep ecological balance and waterways clean, they also are home to a variety of endangered species, including the King Rail, a chicken-sized marsh bird, which can only survive in large areas of dense, undisturbed wetlands. As wetlands are encroached upon for agriculture or other development, species like the King Rail lose their habitat, which are imperative to the protection of the bird from predators.

Prior to the 1980’s wetlands in Pennsylvania were disappearing at an alarming rate. In recent years, an emphasis has been placed on environmental preservation in conjunction with new development. This can be shown in new, stricter stormwater management requirements and in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (PADEP) new regulations, permitting processes, and educational outreach programs.

The PADEP has come up with a variety of strategies to mitigate wetland infringement. One such strategy is a public-private partnership, in which local landowners can receive grants for conservation efforts. Educational outreach programs have also helped the PADEP’s mission by helping developers understand the importance of wetlands as well as assisting in the pre-application process (which also reduces denials and streamlines the process). The PADEP has also recently enacted more stringent guidelines for permitting, which will help conservation efforts.

In fact, due to recent research conducted by the PA Fish and Boat Commission, a number of local streams have been classified as “Stream Sections that Support Natural Reproduction of Trout.” This is great for our local fish populations, anglers, and community, however, the designation comes with stiffer regulations for the development industry. Once a stream has achieved this designation, the PADEP then designates connected wetlands as “Exceptional Value.”

The intentionally vague wording surrounding Exceptional Value Wetlands, coupled with new permitting costs creates a number of issues for the permitting community. For example, if the project discharges to an Exceptional Value Wetland and disturbs more than one acre, an Individual NPDES permit must be obtained prior to start of any construction. In addition to the increased amount of work required to complete and NPDES Permit form, the review is progressively more stringent. This costs projects not only in budget, but also in time as permits must be reviewed by the Regional DEP office, not the local County Conservation District.

In addition, any discharge or other impacts (i.e. local roadways, temporary roads, etc.) to these wetlands will require a Joint Permit, rather than a General Permit issued by the PADEP. Joint Permits are issued after review by the PADEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

If your project discharges or affects Exceptional Value Wetlands, you will also need to apply for an Individual Permit, which will detail Erosion and Sedimentation (E&S) Controls to be implemented during construction activities. Only ABACT (Antidegredation Best Available Combination of Technologies) approved E&S measures may be installed on these construction sites. ABACT E&S facilities include construction entrances with wash racks, rock filter berms lined with amended soils, skimmer devices within sediment basins, and others listed in the PADEP erosion control measures.

These strict standards and stringent permitting processes, while time consuming and expensive, have drastically helped wetland conservation efforts. In fact, PA currently has a “Wetlands Net Gain Strategy” in place. The goal of the program is to gradually increase the number of wetlands in PA. Increased permitting procedures has helped achieve the no net loss goal, but achieving a net gain relies on the implementation of federal conservation programs. These programs and permitting processes coupled with sustainable design techniques will help conserve wetlands and the threatened and endangered animals that reside in them, while still allowing land development for human conveniences.

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