ODOT compensates for wetland impacts
As one of the state’s largest land developers, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) uses large amounts of land for a statewide transportation system that serves the needs of Ohio’s citizens. And like all responsible land developers, ODOT seeks to perform that duty while at the same time recognizing and respecting nature and the environment.
ODOT members have begun exploring the uses of a concept called “Wetland Banking,” a means by which the department can easily and cost effectively compensate for wetland impacts caused by highway construction projects.
While ODOT must contend with regulations that limit the use of banking, there is real hope that it will be an increasingly valuable tool for future use.
Wetlands are defined as land areas that are saturated either with ground or surface water for such a duration and frequency that they can, and usually do, support “hyrdophytic vegetation,” or plants that grow in wet soil.
Wetlands generally include swamps, bogs and marshes. They may also include areas not typically thought of as wetlands, such as seasonally wet forests.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1977 places stringent controls on these areas to prevent destruction that could affect water supply or aquatic life. Any developer seeking to construct a project that may require the loss of an acre or more of wetlands must notify — or apply for a permit from — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Under the CWA, the developer must first seek to avoid wetlands. If this cannot be done, the developer should then use design and/or construction methods to minimize impacts on wetlands.
Any remaining wetland impacts can then be mitigated by creation of new wetlands or restoration of former wetlands. Once built, the wetland must be monitored by the developer for five years to make sure it is self-sustaining or “viable.” This can create problems if there is not enough additional land to compensate. And, there may be other reasons that mitigation along the project may not be workable.
For ODOT, wetland mitigation can be awkward and expensive. ODOT currently has nearly 100 projects that will require filling in wetlands. While most will destroy only small areas, about 28 projects will require permits and compensatory mitigation.
Mitigation on site or adjacent to the site can be difficult to plan when there are already developments all around a project. Mitigation on a landscape not meant to sustain a wetland can fail. The cost of these efforts can range anywhere from $66,000 to $306,000 per acre, and some of these costs are fixed no matter how big or small the area of compensation is.
Wetland mitigation banking offers a solution of sorts to this problem. The concept is similar to a financial bank. A developer can work on creating an area of wetlands independent of the project site. The developer receives credits for the work that is done. Those credits are then applied or sold to another developer for any later project where wetlands are destroyed and cannot be mitigated on site.
ODOT believes that this system has several significant benefits. Using a banking system, mitigation for several projects can be combined in one area. This means that the effort of designing several areas can be replaced with one design. Since the area is selected for its suitability instead of its location, success is much more certain.
By grouping mitigation wetlands into a selected area, they can be managed and monitored effectively for the five years required by law.
A non-profit organization known as the Ohio Wetlands Foundation has created wetland banks in Ohio. Developers are allowed to buy sections of these banks as credits for wetlands losses.
Currently, ODOT has mitigated three acres of loss by buying credits from a bank and has recently made the necessary arrangements to mitigate a portion of 38.25 acres of loss on another project.
“The cost of buying into the mitigation bank is only 25 percent of our least expensive mitigation to date,” says Tom Linkous, an environmental manager with ODOT and a supporter of the Ohio Wetland Foundation Bank.
“The sections will more than likely be successful because the site was chosen for its ability to sustain wetlands. This represents a responsible use of resources,” he says.
Wetland banking, however, is only employed as an alternative choice. Under the rules of the CWA, banking is only employed to the extent that mitigation cannot be effectively employed on site or adjacent to the site.
“ODOT is responsible for replacing wetlands `in kind,”‘ says John Baird, an environmental specialist with ODOT. “That is, on the project site and of the same hydrological and biological type as the wetlands destroyed. As necessary, we can replace wetlands `out of kind.’ That is, on site but with different physical characteristics if it’s more viable. It is only when these two possibilities are exhausted or unviable that we can go off site to a wetland mitigation bank.”
Fred Steck, an environmental supervisor with ODOT, adds that there is a very good reason for this preference. “There is a real need to replace wetlands on or near their original site to maintain the ecological balance of the area, he says. There is no guarantee though, that a wetland created on site will be self-sustaining.
“This is still a new science. It’s still evolving,” he says.