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Replacement wetlands are usually inferior to originals

Sunday, November 14, 1999

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

All wetlands are not created equal.

While national and state laws mandate replacement of natural wetlands lost to development, it's tough to match Mother Nature. As a result, well over half of replacement wetland projects fail.

And many of those that do succeed don't have the same natural or social value as the wetlands they replace. Either they're different types of wetlands and don't have the same beneficial functions, or they're in rural, out-of-the-way places where their water filtration and flood protection value has less impact than it would in a more urban area.

A recent trend analysis found most states were losing well-established, forested and shrub-filled wetlands and replacing them with open water and cattail-dominated wetlands, said Jeff Lapp, a regional wetland enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The cattail wetlands "are early, young wetlands," Lapp said. "They have had a high rate of failure."

It's an assessment supported by recent studies, including two in Pennsylvania.

A 1996 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection evaluation of 99 replacement wetlands found 59 had failed, with most of the failures due to lack of water. "Very few replacement sites provide the value and function of a natural wetland," the review concluded.

In 1992, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation study of 30 wetland mitigation sites, required because 17 highway construction projects had destroyed 42 acres of wetlands between 1983 and 1990, found "only eight sites ... adequately compensate for wetland losses."

In King County, Wash., a 1998 review of 29 wetland and stream mitigation sites found that 23, or 79 percent, were unsuccessful. Only one of the 29 replaced the functions of the wetlands destroyed by development. The study also found that nine promised mitigation sites hadn't been built at all.

Wetlands can fail for many reasons. The most common are hydrology problems -- either too much or too little water -- caused by improper design or maintenance. The hydrology problems cause wetland plants to fail to take root.

Wetland plants also can be decimated by animals, including deer, which browse on tender emergent shoots. Invasive, non-native plant species, such as purple loosestrife, also can crowd out wetland plantings.

Following a century in which Pennsylvania's 1 million acres of wetlands were reduced by more than half, the state Department of Environmental Protection says more than 3,100 acres of wetlands have been added to the state's half-million acre total over the past several years.

Most of the state's new muddy areas are the result of work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, individual landowners and private clubs or environmental groups that have built wetlands to clean up acid mine drainage.

In Pennsylvania, the Fish and Wildlife Service has added the bulk of the new acreage to the wetland total by restoring acreage drained in the past by agriculture or rural mining, said Ed Perry, assistant supervisor of the service's State College office.

"We're creating wildlife and aquatic habitat, but almost none of the mitigation is where development is taking place," he said. "We're losing wetlands' flood and erosion control values and a lot of other values in urban areas."

The state's Wetland Replacement Project, started in 1996, hasn't helped in those areas either.

The project allows developers who affect one-half acre or less of wetlands and can't find the room or conditions to replace them on-site to pay up to $7,500 into a state fund, which uses the money to purchase land and construct replacement wetlands.

But Perry said all the sites created by the state's wetland replacement program were in rural areas. "They bear no relation to where the impacts are occurring. There are no state mitigation sites, for example, in the urban or suburban southwest or southeastern ends of the state."

"The problem with the state fund," Perry added, "is that with the money they're charging for wetland losses, they can't afford to pay for land anywhere near developing areas."

Another problem: The fund has spent less than half of the money put into it. So far, it has allocated about $250,000 to build a total of 41.4 acres of wetlands in 14 locations. It has a balance of $267,000.

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