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Hal Owen & Associates, Inc.

Soil and Environmental Scientists

Article:  Wetlands

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Hal Owen & Associates, Inc.
Post Office Box 400
Lillington, NC 27546

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Swamps.  Bogs.  Marshes. These are the places that come to mind for most people when asked about wetlands.  But wetlands aren’t always so obvious.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) defines wetlands as

"…those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.”

Now that your eyes have glazed over, what does that mean?  It means wetlands are areas where the upper part of the soil is saturated long enough to affect the types of plants that grow there.  Walk around a pond and you are sure to recognize cattails bending in the breeze and willows crowded around the water’s edge.  These plants have special adaptations that allow them to grow in water-logged, oxygen deficient soils.  Wetlands are defined by three characteristics: the prolonged presence of water (wetland hydrology), plants adapted to living under saturated conditions (hydrophytes), and hydric soils.

Wetlands usually occur in low places and drainageways where water collects.  Leaves washed away, leaves piled against the sides of trees, and water marks on trunks are indicators that an area may be a wetland.  Wetlands aren’t always as wet as you might expect, though, due to seasonal changes in the groundwater table and rainfall variations.  Streams and seeps that flow in the spring may be bone dry in the summer.  And the center of a swamp may obviously be wet, but somewhere along the edge is the subtle transition between wetland and upland.  In other words, water does not have to splash under your feet for the site to be a wetland.

Recognizing Wetlands

Are those Wetlands on my Property?

Wetland Regulation

Why do I need to know if those are wetlands on my property?

wetland bottom

Wetlands provide several important ecological functions and are currently regulated at the federal, state and in some cases, the county level.  Federal and state regulations are established under the authority of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and are designed to limit activities that will negatively impact wetlands.  These activities include, but are not limited to placing fill material, ditching, levee or dam construction, mechanized land clearing, land leveling, and road construction.  Permits allowing you to impact wetlands are issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers (CWA §404 permit) and the North Carolina Division of Water Resources (CWA §401 Water Quality Certification).

In most cases, an application prior to construction should be submitted to both the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and North Carolina Division of Water Resources (DWR).  The wetlands on site should be delineated and the proposed impacts quantified.  General permits are available for activities that will impact less than 1/2 acre of wetlands and cover typical activities such as road crossings and building foundations.  Projects that cannot meet the conditions of a general permit (ex. more than 1/2-acre of wetland impacts) may apply for an Individual Permit.  You are required to design your project to avoid wetlands, if possible, then to minimize the impacts if they are necessary.  Unavoidable wetland impacts will need to be mitigated, usually by providing compensation (i.e. replacing lost wetlands with new wetlands).

With wetland impacts, it has been our recent experience that asking for permission is much easier than asking for forgiveness.  “Forgiveness” can often involve significant civil penalties (unpermitted impacts to wetlands are illegal).  If the wetland impacts cannot be justified, the wetland will need to be restored and monitored to ensure success.  Impacts that can be justified will need after-the-fact permits, which may include mitigation.  All of these activities can be very expensive.  In other words, it is usually in our client’s best interest to identify the wetlands on their property and obtain the appropriate permits for any proposed wetland impacts up front.

Wetland science and the governing regulations are a work in progress and are being revised and adjusted on a continuous basis.  Hal Owen and Associates has a dedicated staff committed to keeping up with these changing regulatory requirements.  Whether you choose to simply avoid wetland areas or apply for permits to impact these areas, Hal Owen and Associates can provide fast, efficient and knowledgeable service.