25 for 25: Improving the Effectiveness of Wetland Mitigation in New Hampshire
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the ninth in the series, describes how DES has improved the effectiveness of its wetlands mitigation efforts, including the highly successful Aquatic Resource Mitigation Program.
New Hampshire has always valued wetland areas—those areas many call swamps, lowlands and marshes. In fact, New Hampshire was among the first states in the nation to pass its own legislation to protect wetlands. The statute has been revised over the years, but the principal goals and focus still remain: to protect these very vulnerable and important features of the landscape that “quietly” provide numerous benefits to people and wildlife.
A loss of a wetland is a permanent loss of important functions provided by these aquatic resources such as wildlife habitat, water quality improvements, and flood storage. Efforts to offset these permitted wetland losses through mitigation were a common part of permit applications throughout the 1990s but, surprisingly, official wetland mitigation rules were not adopted until 2004. These mitigation options have included wetland creation, restoration and enhancement but these types of sites are not easy to locate, particularly for smaller development projects, and can be difficult to sustain over the long term.
As another way to compensate for wetland losses, in-lieu of the traditional forms of compensation, DES adopted a payment option for applicants unable to find meaningful mitigation. This option, called the Aquatic Resource Mitigation (ARM) Fund, was established in state law in 2006 to provide wetland permit applicants the opportunity to provide funds into a watershed specific account and these funds are then disbursed to fund significant wetland restoration or land conservation projects in that particular watershed. New Hampshire’s watersheds are established by identifying the highest areas from which water runs off to rivers and streams and their many branching tributaries, similar to how a funnel operates. We all live in a watershed!
The ARM Fund program has been very successful for permit applicants, and has resulted in many significant wetland preservation and restoration projects across the state by enabling funds from smaller impact development projects to be aggregated, allowing for larger, more meaningful mitigation projects. In 2010, nine development projects resulting in 15.91 acres of wetland loss used the payment option. For these wetland impacts, the ARM Fund collected funds totaling over $2 million. Through a coordinated grant process, 15 project awards resulted in a total gain of 2,643 acres of land preservation. In addition, these projects resulted in 6.81 acres of wetland restoration, 78.85 acres of wetland enhancement, and 1,500 linear feet of stream restoration. One particular award in Strafford leveraged additional funds to protect over 1,000 acres of land that links to 5,000 acres of undeveloped land. This protected habitat will stay in its natural state for future generations to enjoy.
A second project under construction is the restoration of an urban stream and wetland complexes in Dover. The University of New Hampshire Stormwater Center will utilize ARM funds to significantly restore and reconnect 0.9 miles of Berry Brook, restore and create wetlands and upland buffers along the stream corridor, provide treatment of 164 acres of watershed for fish and other aquatic species, and reconnect Berry Brook to the Cocheco River. The watershed restoration and implementation plan was developed in coordination with the Cocheco River Watershed Coalition and the greater Dover community.
The ARM fund recognizes the potential for long-term environmental results from wetland mitigation that considers watershed goals, assists conservation efforts in recognizing green infrastructure plans of a town or region, and has the ability to target important and vulnerable wetlands in a region. The new in-lieu fee program offers something for everyone: a mechanism for developers to proceed with projects that previously were not viable because no compensatory mitigation was practicable; a chance for municipalities to accomplish high priority local conservation goals; and an opportunity for the state to accomplish projects that have greater conservation value than could be achieved through conventional compensatory wetland mitigation. Although the ARM Fund represents a recent advancement, it is illustrative of the positive evolution that has occurred regularly in the course of DES’s 25 years of service to the people and environment of New Hampshire.
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