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Published in Providence Business News (April 20, 1992)

Although most people knowledgeable about wetlands agree wetlands should be preserved and protected, these same experts disagree whether wetlands should be created or restored.

Such controversy is consistent with the national debate about wetlands policy; today, almost everything about wetlands is controversial. Even what constitutes a wetland is the subject of an acrimonious debate. A wetland can be dry most of the year, and non experts may not even know they own a wetland. (Under Federal standards proposed and then rescinded because of their controversy, land could be a wetland if water was 18″ below the surface of the ground.)

If preservation of wetlands is a national priority, as President Bush asserted with his pledge of “no net loss” of wetlands, isn’t it a good idea to create or restore wetlands? The answer would seem to be “yes,” because the country has been losing wetlands at an alarming rate, and because wetlands clearly provide valuable functions.

It has been estimated that since Colonial times, the Continental United States has lost more than half its wetlands. Washington, Boston, and other major cities now occupy former swamps or marshlands, and much of downtown Providence rests on former cove land. Historically, most wetlands have been lost to agricultural uses, not development. One estimate places wetlands loss today at 275,000 acres annually.

Yet wetlands provide extremely valuable functions. Beyond providing a refuge for waterfowl and spawning and nursery grounds for most of our commercial shellfish and sports fisheries, wetlands improve water quality by filtering pollutants. Wetlands are natural flood control devices, often more effective than dams, and they also prevent erosion.

Given the historic loss of wetlands and their value, why is there controversy about creating wetlands? Two reasons. First, proposals to create (i.e., replicate) or restore wetlands are almost always advanced with proposals to alter an existing wetland. A development proposal which would eliminate some wetlands may propose to create wetlands elsewhere on site. However, some regulators view all wetlands as valuable, and may rule that creating or restoring a wetland doesn’t justify altering even a low value, degraded wetland.

Secondly, there is disagreement on the ability to successfully create a wetland. Even supporters of replication acknowledge there have been more failures than successes. Some wetlands may be so complex that replication is not feasible. For example, it may take 50 100 years to recreate a forested freshwater wetland.

Replication and restoration is admittedly difficult and requires careful site analysis and stringent environmental engineering. The cost reflects this; $10,000 $30,000 per acre is not unusual.

However, studies of replication efforts demonstrate that replication can work, and even failures point to how efforts can be made successful. One study of the restoration and creation of coastal California wetlands focused on 63 projects between 1954 and 1985. This study found that 65% were completely successful, 25% partially successful, and 10% unsuccessful. The lower success rates were attributable to poor pre construction engineering analysis and post construction monitoring, and little regulatory review.

Successful restoration projects have involved such disparate areas as the Allegheny River in New York, the Des Plains River in Illinois, and projects in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and western Minnesota. Restoration has been successful in conjunction with significant development projects, such as an office and hotel complex in Tampa, Florida, and an office complex in Westford, Massachusetts.

Despite this controversy, regulators do allow replication, although receptiveness to the approach clearly varies by jurisdiction. Federal regulators allow restoration of degraded wetlands and replication of new wetlands. Massachusetts, with one of the toughest wetlands laws in the country, allows replication for certain sizes and types of wetlands. Rhode Island has historically taken the position that replication is unlikely to succeed. However, Dean Albro, DEM’s chief of freshwater wetlands, says DEM is now reexamining the issue and studying the feasibility of analyzing wetlands values to determine when the alteration of existing wetlands may in part be justified by replication or restoration efforts.

Given the importance of wetlands, their loss to date, the success of carefully controlled restoration efforts, and the reality that much of the remaining developable lands contain some wetlands, other formerly reluctant jurisdictions should follow Rhode Island’s lead in carefully studying restoration and replication issues before the next development boom. Wetlands are valuable, but not all wetlands are valuable wetlands. It makes economic and environmental sense to “trade off” wetlands of little value for more valuable wetlands.