Point of View

Why NC must protect its small, isolated wetlands

June 5, 2014 

The legislature is planning to remove protections for vitally important features of North Carolina that help reduce the effect of drought, provide habitat for endangered or threatened amphibians and help prevent flooding during storms by storing water.

We almost lost these important water quality protections once before. Back in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court created a loophole in the Clean Water Act when it declared that isolated wetlands (basically bowls in the landscape without surface connections to downstream waters) were not subject to the act’s wetland permitting program.

But North Carolina wisely chose to continue protecting these hard-working features of our landscape, which help to provide hydrologic stability and security for our state’s communities. The state’s isolated wetlands program has served our state well since it was unanimously adopted by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission in 2001.

The most recent version of legislation pending in the General Assembly raises the threshold beyond which a permit is required to fill these wetlands from the existing 10th of an acre in the Piedmont and mountains and the existing third of an acre in the coastal plain to a proposed one-acre threshold statewide.

Recent work done in North Carolina and South Carolina by RTI International, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the University of South Carolina shows that this proposed law would essentially remove protection from these wetlands. This study focused on isolated wetlands in eight counties in the Carolinas. In the N.C. counties, this work estimated that there were at least 50,000 isolated wetlands with an average size of 0.68 acres. Based on an extrapolation of these numbers from these four N.C. counties, there are certainly hundreds of thousands of these isolated wetlands in North Carolina occupying tens of thousands of acres. However, since these wetlands are common yet generally small, they comprise about 2 percent of the state’s wetlands.

The isolated wetlands in the four-county study area in North Carolina were estimated to store about 4,000-acre-feet of water, which is especially important during tropical storms and hurricanes where these bowls in the landscape fill up with water and reduce downstream flooding. In addition, recent extensive groundwater monitoring work by NCDENR and USC show that many of these wetlands have strong connections to nearby streams through the surrounding sandy soils, which helps maintain stream flow during droughts.

It is clear that N.C. lawmakers are intent on modifying the isolated wetland rules, and it is not unreasonable to update the program. But what is the best way?

The logical approach would be to take wetland quality into account. Currently, wetland quality is not considered during the permitting process – the highest-quality isolated wetland receives as much protection as the lowest-quality isolated wetland. The use of wetland quality in the permitting program has long been a goal of the agencies, development industry and environmental groups in North Carolina. Incorporating this approach into the isolated wetland permitting program would allow DENR to test it before eventually adopting it statewide.

In 2008, the state and federal regulatory programs developed the N.C. Wetland Assessment Method to allow a 15-minute determination of the value of a wetland. This method could be readily required for isolated wetland permitting. Use of this method could be the focus of a thoughtful modification of these rules, which would still provide protection for this important type of wetland and lay the groundwork for long overdue reform of the broader wetland protection program.

The proposed legislation, however, would make the isolated wetland permitting program meaningless and allow the unmanaged destruction of this unique and valuable resource in North Carolina.

John Dorney of Raleigh, a senior environmental scientist with an engineering consulting firm, served 28 years in the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

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