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Great Lakes Article:

Creating New Wetlands Not So Easy to Do
By John Flesher
Associated Press
12/23/03

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 ecosystems.

"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, can work.

"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 Ann Arbor.

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 storage.

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 particularly valuable.

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.

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