U.S. Water News Online
AMHERST, Mass. -- University of Massachusetts professor Joseph S. Larson, an international expert on wetlands, says recent changes in federal wetlands regulations could lead to greater protection for small wetlands that are important for maintaining water quality, as well as rare species habitats.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that oversees dredging and filling in waterways, has recently announced it is changing its wetlands regulations by imposing new restrictions on a class of general permits called "nationwides."
Larson, director of the UMass Environmental Institute, said recent research reveals that the small wetlands near the headwaters of streams are more efficient at reducing pollution than downstream wetlands. He said the research also shows those same small upstream wetlands serve as frequent habitats for rare and endangered species, something that is just now being understood.
"Until now, people thought that little wetlands don't count for much, but we're finding that isn't true," Larson said. "In the upper reaches of a watershed, the small wetlands are more effective in pollution control than those downstream that receive a much higher volume of water."
The permits now allow landowners to drain small patches of wetlands for certain specific purposes. Under one permit, called Nationwide 26, landowners can bypass the usual review process and get rapid approval for draining between one and ten acres of wetlands. For smaller projects, landowners don't have to notify anyone of their plans, under that permit.
Under the new proposed regulations, the Nationwide 26 exclusions would be narrowed so that only those affecting three acres or less would apply and notice would have to be given for activities that affect more than one-third acre. After a phase-in period, which could be two years, the Nationwide 26 permits would be eliminated, according to Corps officials.
Larson said changes to the Nationwide 26 permit could substantially improve protection of the small, upstream wetlands. He also said that part of the problem with the permits, in general, is that they have not been applied uniformly across the country.
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