Ecology will scrap wetlands 'banks'
May 18, 2002
LACEY, WA -- The state Department of Ecology has scrapped a much-anticipated rule to help replace and restore wetlands when other wetlands are destroyed by development.
State budget cuts forced suspension of the rule designed to encourage and certify wetland mitigation banks, agency spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison said.
Canceling the rule was part of the effort to reduce the agency's Shorelands Environmental Assistance Program staff from 153 to 138.
"This is the hardest to accept," Hutchison said of the decision to suspend the rule.
The agency this year is cutting a total of $3.15 million and 29 positions from its budget, which represents about a 2 percent reduction in funding and a slightly higher reduction in jobs.
Among the casualties are a dairy inspector, a hydrogeologist, two employees assigned to review county and city shoreline development permits, four auto emissions inspector positions and two water quality employees assigned to road abandonment projects on U.S. Forest Service land.
The cuts will be a combination of layoffs, job shifts and elimination of unfilled positions. Notices to employees will go out beginning next week.
"We expect more cuts next year," Hutchison said.
The wetland rule would have established standards and procedures for certifying wetland banks, which work like this:
The "bank" is typically a piece of property with degraded wetlands, which, if improved, would provide fish and wildlife habitat, flood control or improved water quality for groundwater or nearby rivers and streams.
The owner of the bank -- it could be a governmental entity or a private developer -- receives a set number of credits for their work.
The credits are then sold to a developer or government agency when their activities damage wetlands somewhere else.
For example, developers could buy credits when building a shopping mall or highway.
Thurston County and area cities require protection or replacement of wetlands as small as a quarter-acre to a half-acre. Typically, wetlands lost to public or private development are replaced on or near the project site.
Recent state and local studies reveal that on-site mitigation rarely works due to poor design, lack of maintenance or lack of enforcement, said Thurston Regional Planning Council senior planner Steve Morrison.
The lack of a state rule will promote the status quo and stifle creation of the regional, more productive wetlands, Morrison said.
Financial backing for a wetlands bank will be hard to secure without a state certification program, said Jodi Slavick, legal counsel for the Building Industry Association of Washington.
Slavick questioned Ecology's decision to eliminate the rule, which she said would have led to a benefit for the environment and development.
"Programs that benefit growth and development are the first to get cut," she said.
There were no easy choices, Hutchison said. However, the latest round of Ecology cuts was aimed at programs not required by law.
Wetland restoration efforts are bound to suffer without state oversight, said Brid Nowlan, science director of the Washington State Wetlands Network, a program of the National Audubon Society.
More emphasis is needed on saving existing wetlands, she said.
Despite bids to replace wetlands and policies to support no net loss of wetlands, roughly 90,000 acres of wetlands are lost on nonfederal lands each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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