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Great Lakes Article:

New Wetlands Mitigation Guidance Released
Environmental News Service
01/07/2003

WASHINGTON, DC(ENS) - The Bush administration has issued new guidance that details how developers must replace, or mitigate for the wetlands they destroy.

The National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan lists 17 action items that the agencies will undertake to improve the effectiveness of restoring wetlands that are impacted or lost to activities governed by clean water laws. Completing the actions in the plan will enable the agencies and the public to make better decisions regarding where and how to restore, enhance and protect wetlands; improve their ability to measure and evaluate the success of mitigation efforts; and expand the public's access to information on these wetland restoration activities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in conjunction with the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior and Transportation, said the guidelines will strengthen the nation's commitment to achieve the goal of no net loss of wetlands. The guidance includes a comprehensive action plan to ensure effective restoration of wetlands that are impacted by development.

"These actions affirm this Administration's commitment to the goal of no net loss of America's wetlands and its support for protecting our Nation's watersheds," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman.

Acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works Les Brownlee said that "the improvements in the Corps' regulatory guidance and implementation of the action plan will enhance effective regulatory decision making in the permit process and improve the planning of successful wetland mitigation projects."

Independent evaluations published in 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the effectiveness of wetlands compensatory mitigation for authorized losses of wetlands and other waters under the Clean Water Act. The NAS concluded that, despite progress in the last 20 years, the goal of no net loss of wetlands is not being met for wetland functions by the mitigation programs of federal agencies.

The new action plan and guidance were developed in response to the recommendations made in those reports.

A revised Regulatory Guidance Letter leads the list of action items in the National Wetlands Mitigation Plan. To advance the goal of no net loss of wetlands, the guidance letter emphasizes the a watershed wide approach to prospective mitigation efforts for proposed projects impacting wetlands and other waters; the increased use of functional assessment tools; and improved performance standards.

The guidance letter also emphasizes monitoring, long term management, and financial assurances to help ensure that restored wetlands result in planned environmental gains. The guidance letter also provides greater consistency across the Army Corps' 38 district offices on issues such as the timing of mitigation activities and the party responsible for mitigation success.

Conservation groups had mixed reactions to the new wetlands mitigation plan.

"The Bush administration has taken a positive step to improve federal wetlands mitigation policies, but safeguards that are needed now are still not in place," said Julie Sibbing, wetlands policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation.

"Mitigation certainly should result in the creation of real wetlands," Sibbing added. "But that alone is not enough. At an absolute minimum, we need a no net loss of wetlands policy that replaces wetlands lost to development on an acre by acre basis. The new guidelines fall short of that benchmark."

Jessica Wilkinson, wetlands director at the Environmental Law Institute, said that while the new guidance echoes many of the group's own recommendations and findings, the guidance letter provides little practical guidance on how to apply a science based watershed approach in the field.

"Without solid guidance on how to effectively protect wetlands and mitigation for their losses on a watershed scale, a misapplied watershed approach could lead to a weakening of current provisions in place to assure replacement of lost wetland functions," said Wilkinson, the study's principal investigator.

Copies of the National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan and the Regulatory Guidance Letter are available at: http://www.usace.army.mil or: http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands

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