StarNews Good News: Study says mitigation areas working as planned

Mitigation banking as a profession can often be a tough and thankless slog through a morass of regulatory politics.  What’s more, there is a feeling among some in certain quarters that what we do — restore ecosystems — is frequently not successful and RS is “building” “fake” wetlands that meet regulatory criteria but do not truly add anything much back to the environment.  It is gratifying when our successes are revealed as in the article below.

The article and the study it highlights demonstrates that wetland and stream restoration can be done well according to at least someone’s criteria. I would contend (and often do contend) that mitigation is most successful, however, when it is performed by someone who actually owns the project.

Banked, Full-Delivery, Turn-Key contracted, it doesn’t much matter — but the person doing the work and responsible for the work should have their own personal fortunes rise or fall with the success or failure of the given restoration.  This distinction is somewhat borne out by the data in the recent study, and can be deduced from the graphs I put up here.

But lets not get bogged down in who’s swamps are most thriving on this fine spring day — but rather sit back and enjoy the good news about good mitigation when and where we can find it.

Wetland study shows improvement

By Amy Hotz

Published: Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 10:41 p.m.

Just behind the movie theater at Mayfaire is a little piece of wilderness separated from the business by a retaining wall. Its hardwoods, water-loving plants and the occasional critter give a glimpse into what that property looked like before the mixed-use development paved streets, laid foundations and brought in strings of cars.

When these regulations were made, the idea was to create a kind of environmental balance, allowing development while at the same time making sure natural habitats endure.

A new study funded by a Wetland Program Development Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken a look at 82 wetland sites and 79 stream sites affected by these regulations to determine if they’ve worked. The study, “Compensatory Stream and Wetland Mitigation in North Carolina – An Evaluation of Regulatory Success,” was released this month.

Several of these test sites were in Southeastern North Carolina, including Mayfaire, Taylor Farm (Landfall), Beach Walk at Kure Beach and Brunswick County Airport.

“Things have improved since the late 1990s. . . . The science has come a long way since then,” said Tammy Hill, environmental senior specialist with the N.C. Division of Water Quality. “That said, we still saw room for improvement. . . . This project helped to highlight some of the problem areas and also some things that we can continue to look into in the future.”

The results of the study indicate 75 percent of the wetland and stream mitigation projects were successful in meeting their regulatory requirements. And, according to the Division of Water Quality, this is a great improvement over two studies done in 1995. One showed a 20 percent success rate for wetlands and another showed a 42 percent success rate. The new study is the first time stream restoration success had been evaluated.

When a construction project is allowed to damage a stream or wetland and then mitigate that damage, mitigation goals are approved by the state of North Carolina and the Army Corps of Engineers. Hill said often these goals include requirements for the groundwater table, the density of vegetation and various soil requirements. Usually, these indicators are monitored for five years by private consulting firms hired by the property owner. Their data are sent to the state. And the state, periodically, goes to the site to double check.

In the recent study, whether a site was successful, unsuccessful or had mixed success, was determined according to how many of these previously established goals were met.

Landfall and Mayfaire had mixed results. The Brunswick County Airport’s site was successful. And the Beach Walk site was considered unsuccessful.

Mitigation for the Beach Walk was off-site, near The Cape subdivision. Hill said it was considered unsuccessful because there is a housing development on a golf course next to it and someone had flagged some of the trees as though marking them for cutting.

“It looked almost like that development was starting to infringe on the preservation area,” Hill said. “They are supposed to stay preserved forever.”

There are a range of penalties for harming mitigation areas. Hill said the easement holder was notified and has likely already taken steps to correct it.

Now, the state and Corps of Engineers will take the data from the study and determine what can be done to make stream and wetland mitigation even more successful.

Some observations were already outlined in the study. It states that mitigation takes time. The five-to-seven-year monitoring time frame required by regulation may be too short. Also, mitigation projects in the mountains and here on the coastal plain are more successful than in the piedmont. The hard clay soil found there is easy to erode and difficult to re-establish, which is something scientists had not considered before.

And because of this study, the Division of Water Quality will use another EPA grant to determine if the number and diversity of aquatic bugs can be used to tell if stream mitigation in small watersheds is a good indicator of success. That method is already used in watersheds of three square miles or larger.

Amy Hotz: 343-2099

On Twitter: @AmyHotz