Protecting Wetlands and Property Owners’ Expectations

As we have become more cognizant of the need to protect water quality and more aware of the connections between groundwater, surface water, precipitation and climate, the usefulness of wetlands has come into clearer focus. Wetlands may protect surface water from runoff and contamination threats, reduce flood damage and provide habitat for many species of plants and animals. But in regulating the use of property containing wetlands, do we go too far in treating all wetlands as equally valuable?

Consider six scenarios:

  1. A retiree wants to ‘improve’ wetlands he owns. He digs a pond to enhance migratory waterfowl habitat.
  2. An older couple purchases a lot on a popular lake for their retirement home. All the neighbors have filled in their properties with soil for lawn and with sand to the water’s edge. They want to protect the wetlands near the shore on their lot.
  3. The department of transportation builds and maintains highways across the state. They have to manage the rights of way, shoulders, and intersections to provide for safe travel and that means filling in wetlands in many locations.
  4. A developer wants to take her 100 acres and develop it with a golf course and homes. The property includes fields, woods and wetlands in a variety of locations, including along a stream that traverses the property.
  5. A sand dune property sits between the lake and an inland stream where there are wetlands. The shifting sands move and, in some places, fill in the wetlands.
  6. A farmer works acreage made arable years before through drainage of former wetlands. He needs to be able to maintain his drainage ditches and, in some places, to expand the usable land in the same manner to address spring flooding issues.
  7. A city proposes to clear the sand along a beach that has become overgrown with weeds since the lake level dropped over the last decade. The lake level historically has fluctuated up and down, with the plant growth naturally disappearing in high water years.

In each of these cases, is the value of the wetlands the same? Does the value depend on site-specific factors? Is it a wise use of government resources to oversee these activities? How does one balance the close scrutiny paid in some cases and not in others?

We have a complex, multi-layered regulatory framework that challenges anyone with good intentions and can seem draconian in its insistence that all wetlands are equally valuable. Environmental regulation is maturing. We discovered the value of wetlands and are protecting them. Now let’s step back and find ways to inject a rule of reason into that protection. And let’s consider the value of other types of landform and habitat (meadows, grasslands, forest, riverbed, shoreline, and more), as well.