Part I: Assessing the Functional Quality of Project Wetlands

Alyson EddieAssessing the functional quality of wetlands, determining wetland mitigation using functional assessment methods, and protecting wetland projects during construction are all major areas of importance and concern in the environmental planning arena. The above issues will be examined in detail in a three-part series, beginning with assessment of the functional quality of wetland projects.

Beginning a project in an area with, or near, wetlands can require a number of complicated steps before the project can be completed. If your project—whether restoration, transportation, energy, or development— impacts wetlands, you are likely to have to initiate the process of obtaining a Clean Water Act Section 404 wetland dredge and fill permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). You will find during the permitting process that, while wetland impacts in general should be avoided, avoiding wetlands is not always possible and not all wetland impacts are alike.

Scientific Assessment Methodologies. The Corps is beginning to rely on scientific methodologies to assess wetland quality or functionality to establish the degree of impact to a wetland, and often base mitigation for wetland impacts on the assessment. How do you determine the functional quality of wetlands associated with your project? Well, it depends upon the nature of your project, and, if it is being completed for a public agency, the methodology that agency has in place. Your agency project manager and Clean Water Act permitting consultant can help you identify the correct methodology for your environmental planning project. Using a sound methodology helps the Corps determine impacts to pristine versus low-functioning, where already degraded wetlands will be addressed differently in the permitting process.

Some states have developed specific methods to assess the functional quality of wetlands. In the state of Utah for instance, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has developed a wetland functional assessment method associated with linear transportation projects. This method is now being applied to all manners of non-linear wetland projects in an effort to quantify wetland impacts.

As a wetland scientist, I have had the experience of performing Section 404 evaluations and have applied this knowledge to the UDOT Wetland Functional Assessment method to a several hundred-acre river delta restoration project. Despite this project’s purpose of wetland restoration, the existing wetlands had to be assessed to determine if the restoration activities would have a negative impact on the existing wetlands, either degrading the quality in some manner or converting the existing wetlands to a different wetland type. Assessing the quality of each of the wetlands in the project area provided the agency with a quantifiable picture of the degree of potential impairment to the wetlands resulting from project activities. This inevitably leads to a discussion of mitigation required for project associated wetland impacts.

In part II of this series, we will address the issue of determining the functional quality of a wetland mitigation using functional assessment methods.