Wetland loss still outweighs gain despite 20 years of progress

June 27, 2001

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Despite 20 years of progress in restoring and creating wetlands, we still have not stopped the loss of wetlands in America, according to a report released by the National Research Council (NRC).

William Mitsch, director of the Olentangy River Wetlands Research Park at Ohio State University, served on the advisory committee for the report, entitled "Compensating for Wetland Losses Under the Clean Water Act."

Mitsch, who also holds professorships in natural resources and environmental science at Ohio State, said the report "recommends improving current federal mitigation laws to achieve the goal of stopping the net loss of wetlands." Mitigation usually means creating or restoring more than one acre of wetlands for every acre of wetland filled.

Efforts to restore wetlands have made some headway: Loss of wetlands in the United States has declined during the past 15 years - from 1986 to 1997, the estimated annual rate of wetland loss was 23 percent that of the previous decade, according to the NRC report. But data in the report show that required mitigation projects often aren't undertaken or fail to meet permit conditions outlined by Section 404 of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Section 404 requires those who want to discharge materials - such as soil or sand - into a wetland to get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before doing so. It also requires individuals to provide "compensatory mitigation" - such as creating a wetland elsewhere - as a condition for issuing a permit.

"Some sites we studied met the criteria for permit compliance and show promise of developing into functional wetlands," Mitsch said. "But in many cases, wetlands are created in areas where they simply can't thrive or the required compensation actions are poorly designed or carelessly implemented."

The NRC report suggested that sound mitigation plans could result in a gain of 78 percent in wetland area nationally. But even though 1.8 acres of wetlands were created or restored for every acre lost during the past eight years, the United States still lost wetlands.

"Some wetland loss is not covered by Section 404," Mitsch said. "Also, created or restored wetlands are often poorly constructed."

Since the 1780s, the contiguous United States has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands, Mitsch said, though the loss has slowed in the last two decades.

"Either enforcement of Section 404 is having some effect as a deterrent to filling wetlands, or we are simply running out of wetlands to fill," he said.

In addition to poorly implemented mitigation, wetland monitoring "is seldom required for more than five years," he said. "But up to 20 years may be needed for some restored or created wetland sites to achieve functional goals."

The report outlined several recommendations for stopping the loss of wetlands including:
-end-
Mitsch's colleagues on the report committee included researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; North Carolina State University; Stetson University College of Law; University of Minnesota, Duluth; University of Maryland; University of Washington, Seattle; and Louisiana State University. Representatives from the California Department of Transportation, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, and WilsonMiller, Inc. served on the committee as well.

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Contact: William Mitsch, 614-292-9774; Mitsch.1@osu.edu
Written by Holly Wagner, 614-292-8310; Wagner.235@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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