Swamp Things: Handling local wetlands issues
A recently released study of the amount of wetlands left in the United States could mean a lot of things for cities and counties. But whatever the interpretation, a couple of points seem clear: Wetlands are still a declining natural resource, and local governments can still deal more effectively with regulations and the question of how (or whether) to protect the wetlands that remain in their jurisdictions.
Between 1985 and 1995, more than one million acres of the swamps, marshes, potholes and other land features known as wetlands were lost to agriculture and urban development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reported in September. Interpreting the agency’s report is a bit like considering whether the marsh is half-empty or half-full: On one hand, the decline in wetlands means that the “no-net-loss” target of both the Bush and Clinton administrations remains unmet. But compared to those of the previous decade, the recent numbers are actually encouraging to many observers. According to the USFWS, nearly three million acres of wetlands were lost between 1975 and 1985, so the rate of loss has slowed significantly.
This is the good news in the report for those who buy into the consensus that exists today about the high value of wetlands functions, of which filtering pollutants from water, slowing flood waters and providing wildlife habitat are perhaps the most essential.
So what can city and county leaders take from the wetlands study? For one thing, they share both the credit and the blame for the good and bad news it describes, because although state and federal agencies hold much of the regulatory power relating to wetlands, land use decisions are still made largely at the local level.
They can also expect the debate to continue. Although the basic importance of wetlands is widely recognized, issues like what types and sizes of wetlands should qualify for protection and which impacts should be exempted from regulation remain highly controversial. And the wildlife service’s results will likely be cited as evidence of the need both for more and less stringent regulations.
Naturally, the many local governments with wetlands within their boundaries have been part of the debate. Officials have viewed these ecosystems as important resources as well as liabilities. But regardless of the stance, most cities and counties can improve their handling of wetlands issues that are not likely to go away.
Addressing the issue Undertaking an inventory of the wetlands within the city or county boundaries is a good and increasingly common first step. Simply put, “You’ve got to know what you have before you can manage it,” points out Dave Mehan, senior scientist with Denver-based environmental consultant Wright Water Engineers.
The inventory can show a local government the wetland areas that could be affected by private development and agriculture, as well as by the government’s own public works projects. Mehan says that taking such an inventory can mean both mapping and characterizing wetlands as high-quality or already damaged to some extent, in the effort to find areas that should be priorities for protection. In other words, local governments should consider the nature of existing wetlands, not just the acreage.
GIS data and the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) maps that are distributed jointly by the USFWS and U.S. Geological Survey can be starting points for identifying local wetlands. Soil maps from county extension services or the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service are also good tools, since they show the hydric soils indicative of wetlands. (Besides soils, vegetation and hydrology are the basic features studied in determining whether a site is a wetlands.)
Tapping these kinds of resources is basically in-office work, so the next logical step would be conducting a field inventory that supplements map information. Some local governments have wetlands experts on staff to lead such surveys, while, for many others, hiring a consultant may make sense.
Beyond completing an inventory, communities may want to go as far as developing a wetlands management plan. The essential idea with such a plan is to set up a more comprehensive framework for dealing with wetlands issues, rather than reacting case-by-case as these issues arise.
A plan might include provisions for mitigation goals, buffer zones and priorities for land acquisition. A local ordinance regarding wetlands may also be part of the mix, although Mehan suggests that cities and counties should avoid creating a redundant set of regulatory hoops. After all, clarifying the wetlands situation for all involved parties is a major objective in creating such a plan.
“I think that it’s a good idea when [local regs] can be dovetailed into the federal permitting process,” he says. If they are not, they can “create kind of a mess.”
A wetlands management plan may include establishing a publicly owned mitigation bank or encouraging the private development of one. These banks have developed as a means of meeting the mitigation requirements both public and private entities face.
They allow parties from departments of transportation and public works to home builders to mitigate damage to wetlands by paying for the restoration or creation of similar land features elsewhere. Depending on the quality of wetlands a project will affect, parties often must purchase, in advance of destroying wetlands, a credit for the same or greater acreage of restored wetlands.
In general, practicing quality mitigation in their own projects is one of the steps local governments can take in dealing effectively with wetlands issues. When building elements of infrastructure, from roads to landfills to water lines, cities and counties unavoidably encounter wetlands. They thus have an opportunity to set examplesfor the development community by excelling in mitigation.
Avoiding wetlands areas is the first step generally required of public agencies that have undertaken a project. If that cannot be accomplished, and some damage to the wetlands is unavoidable, the agencies must mitigate the damage on-site or take advantage of a bank.
If a local agency decides to mitigate on-site, an essential step is making a highly accurate and detailed record of pre-existing conditions like vegetation types and water pH. These conditions must be carefully recreated for a site to function properly long-term, according to Chuck deGarmo, vice president of Calabasas, Calif.-based Valley Crest, a landscaping and site construction firm.
As the methods for such mitigation have improved, interest has grown in projects that mimic the function of natural wetlands for needs besides mitigation. For example, more and more entities are looking at using wetlands as treatment areas in the effort to meet quality standards for the stormwater and wastewater that local governments discharge. The concept is to send highly treated wastewater into man-made wetlands, where it is further cleansed before reaching waterways.
West Palm Beach, Fla., is trying to take this idea a step further: The city has been developing a system that would treat its wastewater in large wetlands areas and eventually allow it filter down to the aquifer that the city taps for drinking water.
On a smaller scale, Aiken, S.C., was inspired by wetlands science to convert a drainage ditch in its 25-acre botanical gardens to a marsh-like area that helps slow and filter runoff from an adjacent road and about 100 acres of surrounding land. The area now includes two small, shallow ponds planted with wetlands vegetation in submerged shelves and along the banks.
Aiken Public Works Director Roger LeDuc says he did research to identify the types of plants that would thrive in the project and completed the work using his public works staff. He says the wetlands area has proven to be an enhancement to the gardens as well as a good alternative to traditional retention ponds.
Mehan cautions, however, that untreated stormwater should not be discharged directly into natural wetlands, arguing that his experience shows that kind of discharge can overwhelm the wetlands’ natural ability to absorb and filter water.
Likewise, the trend for treating wastewater in wetlands has been toward using constructed rather than natural wetlands, according to Larry Schwartz, an engineer in the Orlando office of Camp Dresser & McKee, a Cambridge, Mass.-based environmental consultant. Schwartz, who helped write Florida’s regulations for these kinds of wetlands projects while working for the state, says the technology for constructing wetlands has improved rapidly over the past 15 years or so.
Improving relationships In general, local governments can benefit from improving their relationships with wetlands regulatory agencies as well as their knowledge of the permitting process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), EPA and the USFWS play the most prominent federal roles in dealing with wetlands. As with so many regulatory issues, the trap for local governments is in interacting with such agencies only when some violation has occurred.
David Crosby, a COE section chief in Savannah, Ga., encourages local governments to avoid this trap. “They need to decide what they’re going to do with their wetlands,” he says. “Some [local governments] don’t care and some do, but if you don’t care, it ends up haunting you, both in flooding and dealing with us on permits.”
Cities or counties that communicate regularly with agencies and show they are working diligently to ensure wetlands rules are met, both in public and private activities, may find COE district offices more eager to help them find solutions. “Every district is very different,” says Ward Wilson, an engineer with Louisville, Ky.-based environmental engineering consultant Commonwealth Technology. “It’s probably a good idea to start some type of dialogue, so you can understand what [the agencies’] hot-button issues are.”
Local governments that foster this kind of communication may also find potential partners in the effort to better manage wetlands. For instance, COE and other agencies have shown they are willing to help fund land acquisitions or wetlands education efforts by local governments.
Eugene, Ore., for example, has built such partnerships in dealing with the challenges of wetlands regulations. Like many cities, Eugene had a problem when these regulations grew more stringent in the 1980s.
The city had been steadily improving the infrastructure in its western region, spending more than $20 million to promote industrial development there. That growth was threatened, however, in 1987 when a wetlands survey identified about 760 acres of wetlands in the area, much on vacant land already slotted for industry.
The city decided that creating a comprehensive plan would be the best long-term bet and named the regional Lane Council of Governments as project manager. After extensive public involvement through workshops, newsletters and other means, the West Eugene Wetlands Plan was adopted by the city and Lane County in 1992.
The involvement of the citizens and a technical advisory committee of state and federal officials was key, according to Steve Gordon, the council’s principal planner. A $50,000 EPA grant for an advanced wetland inventory and value assessment was also critical in the planning process (the inventory identified 1,300, rather than 760 acres of wetlands, using the 1989 federal delineation manual).
The West Eugene plan identified about 1,000 acres as protection or restoration priorities and placed the other 300 acres in a “development” category. The latter sites had been partially disturbed or were small, isolated wetlands, according to Gordon.
The focus was on protecting the high-quality wetlands or restoring the damaged areas in the 1,000-acre category. To make that protection possible, the city established a formal partnership with the federal Bureau of Land Management and The Nature Conservancy in 1994 for the joint management of Eugene’s wetlands. The partners, along with the state DOT and Lane County, have acquired approximately 1,200 acres of wetlands, partially with $4.47 million in federal funding channeled through the local BLM district.
“That has been the backbone of the protection effort,” Gordon says of the land acquisition.
Regarding the 300 acres of development wetlands, the city now has a solution to offer: if impacts there are unavoidable, the developing entity can purchase the required credits through the West Eugene Mitigation Bank Program, which is operated by the city’s public works department.
Clients of the program basically pay for restoring wetlands that the city’s plan has targeted, in advance of their own wetland impact. In the first four years of mitigation banking, the city has sold ? credits at $30,000 each.
The bank provides an option for developers and other entities to meet mitigation requirements that might be easier and cheaper than undertaking a restoration project themselves. And as for the overall plan, Gordon says it has given the city a measure of local control over wetlands issues and helped the development community see clearly what it is dealing with.
“You remove the cloud of uncertainty about whether they have wetlands or not,” he says.
That is not to say a comprehensive plan is the only means of enabling mitigation. “I know the interest is out there, but most entities just don’t have the experience developing plans,” Gordon says.
Given that, simply identifying publicly owned lands that may qualify as future restoration sites is a possible step toward creating mitigation options. These sites could become mitigation banks that the local government uses as well as an option for developers.
The bottom line is that local governments with a clear picture of their wetlands are better able to recognize the options exist for them and their constituents. Many, in fact, are already playing a vital role in enhancing those options.
Ensuring adequate supplies of safe drinking water has become both a financial as well as technical challenge for small to medium-sized U.S. cities.
In fact, the availability of ample water in growing urban areas may be as critical to a region’s economic health as it is to residents’ physical well-being. Industries scouting for areas in which to locate or expand often select those communities that can guarantee adequate capacity for water and wastewater treatment at competitive rates.
However, many cities are limited in how much money they can raise from bond issues to finance plant construction. They also frequently lack the technical expertise to bring a state-of-the art facility on-line in a reasonable period of time.
Franklin, Ohio, a community of 11,000 people near Dayton and adjacent to the Great Miami River, was faced with a state mandate to begin treating its groundwater if it wanted to drill new wells, a step the city considered necessary to meet the future water needs of an expanding commercial sector.
But after evaluating the city’s financial and technical resources, the city council decided it did not really want to build and operate a water treatment plant. Rather, all it really wanted was treated water, so privatizing the entire process seemed like the best answer.
With the help of San Francisco-based consultant Paul Eisenhardt, the city wrote an RFP from private firms to provide Franklin with a supply of treated water over the next 20 years. The winning firm was selected in July 1996 to design, build, finance, operate and maintain a five-mgd water treatment plant for 20 years. The city has an option to buy the facility after that 20-year period.
Although traditionally below-market water rates in Franklin have been raised to help pay for expansion of the city’s water system, local leaders estimate that the sole-source approach to water treatment will return benefits to citizens in the future, creating a 30 percent cost reduction over a more traditional approach. Such an approach would have entailed letting separate contracts to individual firms, each handling financing, engineering, construction and contract operations.
Franklin has not only fulfilled its legal obligations but also has improved service to its citizens. It now can supply residents with higher quality water at a lower cost than it could through the traditional multi-vendor approach.
This article was written by Jim Mears, mayor of Franklin, Ohio, and Keith Oldewurtel, senior vice president of Earth Tech’s Total Water Management Division, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Florida, like many rapidly growing states, is finding that its population boom is putting increased pressure on finite freshwater resources. Thus, in places like Palm Beach County, which receives a significant share of the 4,000 to 5,000 people moving to Florida each week, water has become a precious commodity.
In an effort to conserve this resource, the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department has developed a comprehensive reclaimed water program to ensure that its customers have all the affordable, high-quality water they need. The county is meeting its water resources management challenges with a program involving golf course and landscape irrigation as well as through the creation of a 56-acre wetlands area. In the past, the majority of the county’s wastewater was treated and sent 3,000 feet below ground into injection wells. There the water was forever lost to further productive use.
To prevent this waste of a valuable resource, the county now treats the wastewater to irrigation-quality standards at the department’s 30 mgd Southern Region Water Reclamation Facility. It is then pumped through an underground piping system to golf course communities for irrigation. This distribution piping system is completely separate from the county’s drinking water system and is marked by the color purple (the universal color for reclaimed water).
The program is expected to reduce current and future demand for potable water, thereby conserving the underground aquifer that is the county’s primary source of freshwater. Moreover, irrigation with reclaimed water during a drought is not subject to watering restrictions.
Wetlands Treatment Nature recycles its wastewater through natural filtration and sunlight. The water utilities department has established a process that mimics nature by constructing a wetlands treatment system called the Wakodahatchee Wetlands (the name comes from a Seminole Indian phrase meaning ‘created waters’). This 56-acre wetlands system receives 2 mgd of the county’s highly treated wastewater, filtering and cleansing it so the water can recharge local wellfields.
A boardwalk and upland nature trails wind through the wetlands area, enabling visitors to walk, birdwatch, take photographs or study several interpretive displays the county has installed. In addition, local high school biology classes meet at the wetlands to conduct experiments and collect samples.
The water utilities department is working to ensure that the environment’s needs are accounted for and protected, so that Palm Beach County’s water supply can be sustained into the future without harming natural systems and wildlife.
This article was written by Nadine Masiello, manager of support services for the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Water Utilities Department.
The St. Louis Water Division knew in the early 1990s that Conduit No. 1, the oldest of three 16-mile, 60-inch steel water transmission mains in the city, was at risk. Failure of the 70-year-old main would have meant 61,000 gallons of water per minute inundating homes and businesses and causing stalled traffic and sinking streets.
To prevent this nightmare scenario, the water division developed a systematic approach in 1995 to identify the most critical pipeline sections and support the costs of rehabilitation.
Once almost entirely rural, the property above the pipeline today includes high-density residential and business districts in six cities. The pipeline crosses several major highways and travels down the center of a major urban arterial.
In 1990, a corrosion study concluded that traffic, corrosive soil and aging would continue to create small leaks in the main. To reduce the likelihood of a major failure, the water division set three goals for rehabilitating Conduit No. 1: * Systematically identify the pipeline segments most at risk; * Evaluate the alternatives and their actual and social costs; and * Design a rehabilitation solution and operational improvements.
The water division and its engineering consultant began by examining leakage and construction records. The project team walked the pipeline right-of-way to document surface conditions and conducted external and internal inspections of about 5 percent of the pipeline. Based on the team’s observations of pipeline conditions and above-ground structures, the areas with the greatest risks and consequences of pipeline failure became more apparent.
The project team then divided the pipeline into six sections: one rural; two moderate-density residential; one high-density residential; one business district and one highway. A risk-of-failure value was assigned based on the likelihood of failure before and after rehabilitation. Consequences were assessed based on the direct costs and the social costs of pipeline failure.
To evaluate the likely cost of future repairs (with and without rehabilitation), the direct costs of repairing recent pipeline failures were matched with the estimated social costs. A study by Jason Consultants, Washington, D.C., analyzed the social costs of utility installation or repair in the United Kingdom, including traffic delays, disruption and loss of business and concluded that, on average, the traffic delay cost equaled or exceeded the direct construction costs. In densely populated or high-traffic areas, the total cost of a failure can be three or four times the direct cost of repairs.
Once each section of Conduit No. 1 was evaluated, the project team calculated preliminary costs- per-foot for several rehabilitation options. Typically, the conduit does not operate at full hydraulic capacity, so options that reduced the pipe diameter could be considered.
All the options had to provide structural integrity and minimal disruption during construction. Comparing the cost of each option with the likely direct and social costs of future repairs, the advantages of reinforced mortar lining rehabilitation became clear. Sections with the highest risks and consequences – approximately 20 percent of the conduit – were recommended for immediate rehabilitation.
Because one of the highest-risk sections of the pipeline was located beneath a major arterial, thereinforcement process had to be compact and non-disruptive. The contractor therefore applied two layers of steel reinforcing cages and three layers of mortar lining, mixed above ground and piped to a hopper in the pipeline. An underground “speed buggy” carried the hopper to a lining machine that coated the pipe interior with sprayed mortar. Work was done at night.
As the rehab proceeded, the water division was also able to add operational control improvements to the water transmission system, including interconnections, flow control stations and line valves.
The problems encountered during the original installation of Conduit No. 1 have been replaced with the challenges of coordinating work among numerous agencies and working in a busy arterial, but the constant is a need for cost-effectiveness. By rehabilitating the most critical sections, the water division has ensured the delivery of drinking water through Conduit No. 1 for another 70 years.
This article was written by Mark Nankivil, engineer with the St. Louis Water Division, and Daniel Nichols and Ann Dettmer in Sverdrup Civil’s Maryland Heights, Mo., office.
The Lamar County (Tex.) Water Supply District is one of numerous water systems currently using mixed oxidants in an effort to provide customers with high-quality water while meeting increasingly stringent regulations.
The Lamar County WSD serves a population of approximately 4,800 people through 1,800 connections, pumping an average of 350,000 gpd. The WSD previously purchased chloraminated water from its supplier and then boosted the water with gaseous chlorine to maintain a residual. However, variations in the quality of the purchased water and bad taste from the disinfectant led to frequent complaints from the district’s customers.
Searching for a solution, WSD General Manager Alton Dockery contacted officials from the neighboring water system in Diana, which also had experienced taste and odor problems. To solve this problem, Diana officials had turned to mixed oxidant technology and installed an on-site generator, manufactured by Albuquerque, N.M.-based Miox.
According to Diana General Manager Duane Burcham, the quality of well water in that system had greatly improved with the use of mixed oxidant technology.
In fact, the use of mixed oxidants has been added to a list of treatment technologies that comply with the federal Surface Water Treatment Rule for small drinking water systems. (After three years of testing, the U.S. EPA reported that “mixed oxidants are more effective against a broader spectrum of microorganisms when used properly” and “may produce fewer disinfection by-products, such as trihalomethanes, than other chlorination systems.”) According to EPA, a compliance technology is a water treatment method that is affordable, achieves compliance with maximum contaminant levels and can be installed and operated reliably by small systems. Mixed oxidants carry no additional warnings or special considerations such as hazardous components, additional monitoring requirements or the need for a second disinfectant to maintain a residual.
Lamar County’s generator, installed in April 1996, has allowed the system to maintain a residual greater than 1 ppm at the most distant distribution point, more than 25 miles from the disinfection station, as compared to less than .2 ppm using gas chlorine. In addition, overall disinfection costs have dropped due to lower operating costs, according to Dockery.
These benefits were achieved along with an improvement in safety considerations. Since sodium chloride is the only material used in the generation of mixed oxidants, the need for using air masks in the plant was eliminated, as was the need for logging all transport of hazardous gas chlorine canisters and posting the proper signage.
Most importantly, the Lamar County WSD was able to achieve its initial goal of providing better-tasting water. Taste and odor complaints from the WSD’s customers have dropped by about two-thirds, according to Dockery, and as a result, the system installed another generator this spring.