Creating New Wetlands Not So Easy
By John Flesher
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - It sounds like the perfect way
to promote development while preserving the environment.
State regulators allow construction of roads or buildings
that destroy wetlands, as long as the builders agree to
create another wetland somewhere else.
Replacing wetlands this way - known as "mitigation"
- is increasingly popular with both business and government.
They consider it a win-win situation that respects property
rights and economic development without sacrificing precious
"It's an idea we strongly support," said Lynn
Egbert, chief executive officer of the Michigan Association
of Home Builders.
But critics say that while it's not that hard to create
a wet patch of ground, duplicating the biological richness
and productivity of a natural wetland is difficult. And
often, the manmade wetlands are far from the natural sites
they were designed to replace.
"The idea that you can just go out and build another
wetland is one of the myths that has been hardest to let
go of," said Julie Sibbing, a wetland specialist
with the National Wildlife Federation. "In general,
our mitigation efforts have been dismal failures."
In fact, only 22 percent of wetland replacement projects
authorized by the state since the late 1980s were described
as successful overall, according to a study issued in
2001 by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Success was judged by how well a constructed wetland resembles
and performs the functions of a natural one, such as water
purification and wildlife habitat.
Roughly half of the manmade wetlands contained the required
acreage; 42 percent had too much open water and 32 percent
too little; 41 percent had insufficient topsoil for plant
growth; and just 18 percent complied with all permit conditions.
Fifteen percent of the projects authorized by the state
were never completed.
"These statistics showed that the MDEQ's wetland
mitigation program has not been successful in producing
adequate replacement wetlands," the report said.
But the DEQ says rules and procedures put in place before
the report came out in 2001 will improve the program.
For example, applicants are now required to post a bond
or other funds that could be forfeited if their project
doesn't meet specifications. The agency releases the bonds
only when convinced the wetland is functioning as planned.
But the agency relies heavily on permit holders to monitor
their own replacement projects, said Mary Ellen Cromwell,
assistant division chief for geological and land management.
After five years, they submit a final report on whether
the wetland is functioning and, if not, what improvements
are needed. DEQ conducts on-the-spot checks - particularly
after receiving complaints - but doesn't have enough staff
to inspect all replacement wetlands.
No statistics have been compiled to determine how well
the updated policy is working, said Peg Bostwick, wetland
specialist with the DEQ.
Skeptics contend mitigation will never compensate for
loss of natural wetlands. But supporters say that the
concept of replacing wetlands, when carried out properly,
"When everything is done right, there's no question
you can reproduce a wetland that has all the functions
you would expect within two to three years of its creation,"
said Don Tilton, an environmental consultant based in
Wetlands are immensely complex, a geographical balancing
act between open water and solid ground. Many are relics
of the glacial meltdown that produced the Great Lakes
some 10,000 years ago.
Reproducing characteristics that evolved over such long
periods is virtually impossible. But well-crafted imitations
can perform some functions of natural wetlands, such as
wildlife habitat, groundwater replenishment and floodwater
In most cases, developers are required to create 1.5
acres for every acre they degrade. Sometimes they must
do more, for example when they replace rare types of wetlands.
State regulations allow several replacement methods.
The easiest, and most likely to succeed, is restoring
a former wetland to its previous condition.
Most Michigan wetlands were destroyed for crop production.
Ditches were dug, tiles laid and streams diverted to drain
water and create fields. If those steps are reversed,
the wetland may return, especially if aquatic plant seeds
remain in the soil, Tilton said.
A tougher and costlier tactic is building a wetland from
scratch. Choosing a good location is crucial; it's important
to have a watershed already draining into the area and
a high groundwater table. Soil excavation may be needed
to produce a surface, such as clay, that holds water well.
Finally, wetland vegetation must be planted.
In limited cases, the DEQ lets developers degrade wetlands
in exchange for preserving others already in existence
- but only if those being protected are a rare type or
A final option is the "mitigation bank." Developers
create or restore large wetland areas, then sell "credits"
to other developers who are then spared from having to
build replacement wetlands themselves.
Critics, like Wil Cwikiel, program director with the
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey, complain
that the wetlands created for mitigation banks are often
the most common and least costly types. When developers
who have degraded more unusual varieties of wetlands buy
credit for common wetlands, it reduces ecological diversity.
Cwikiel added that some developers also buy credit for
wetlands located far from the ones they damaged.
But supporters say banks will boost the overall quality
of replacement wetlands because the DEQ must judge them
biologically successful before credits are sold.
Steven Chester, DEQ director, described mitigation banking
as an "economic tool" that creates free-market
incentives to increase wetland acreage. "I think
we need to take a harder look at that," he said.