What we planned
- Conduct new overflight of entire state early in 2005, including first time completion of WERO
- Complete review of permit files in 92 towns
- Conduct analysis of types of wetlands impacted and other factors associated with higher loss to gain a better understanding of where to focus resources
- Develop electronic link between wetland loss maps and permit applications so causes can be more readily and more accurately determined.
- Realign program functions to reduce permitting and increase compliance and enforcement through regulatory changes related to buffer zone, avoidance and minimization and appeals.
- Reduce litigation and improve permitting process through policy development.
- Increase enforcement actions and publicity through media to deter illegal fill.
- Protect functions through restoration of illegal fill, work with conservation commissions, evaluate assessment methods, use wetland loss mapping and improve replication success.
What we did
In FY 05, MassDEP initiated an update to the innovative GIS based wetland loss mapping in NERO, SERO and CERO and a first time mapping in WERO. New flights and photography were flown in April of 2005 and new digital imagery is schedule to be complete in the Fall/Winter of 2005/6.
The permit file review in 92 towns was completed in the Summer of 2004 when we determined that 58% of the acreage of loss is illegal or likely illegal, 15% is permitted and 27% falls into other miscellaneous categories; and that the activities causing the most loss are agriculture, residential, commercial, and sand and gravel operations. Further analysis of the data in FY 05 concluded that: wooded deciduous swamps were most frequently impacted; communities with full-time conservation agents (versus part time) and/or wetland bylaws showed only a modest benefit in terms of permitted vs. illegal wetland loss; the most permitted wetland change areas were large residential subdivisions while the most unpermitted wetland change was attributed to cranberry; Illegal homeowner yard expansion made up almost 12 acres of wetlands loss; less than a fifth of wetland loss was associated with wetland replication; permitted wetland loss projects rarely received "closure" through issuance of a Certificate of Compliance.
Wetlands Change Acreage by Disposition
Despite the successes of the Wetlands Change Mapping Project as a pilot initiative, the MassDEP currently faces several challenges in integrating it with the existing information, as well as capturing new information that will improve the efficacy of environmental decision-making. To improve upon these areas, MassDEP was the recipient of a Wetlands Grant Award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop an electronic mapping system that will combine permitting and enforcement databases and visually present data compilations of the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Program so that we can link permitted projects with wetland loss mapping and more easily and accurately determine which losses are permitted and which are illegal. Also, this project will determine where and whether wetland mitigation (replication, restoration etc.) has been approved; how much wetland gain is occurring; and how successful mitigation projects are. An RFQ was developed and posted to hire an IT consultant to aid MassDEP in November 2005. Also, MassDEP has already begun a pilot project on an internal mapping tool, utilizing Google's Application Programming Interface (API), and has also utilized a mapping tool developed by MassGIS.
To realign program functions to reduce time spent on permitting (estimated as 50%) and increase time spent on compliance and enforcement, MassDEP promulgated changes to the wetland regulations on March 1, 2005 including: Simplifying permit review in the buffer zone so that efforts can be focused projects involving direct wetland impacts (buffer zone cases are estimated to be between 30% and 40% of the total MassDEP caseload); Clarifying avoidance and minimization procedures applicants must follow when altering bordering vegetated wetlands to reduce loss; and Improving the efficiency of the appeal process at the regional and adjudicatory level. The efforts to encourage greater setbacks from wetlands has met little success so far. Existing setback requirements under local by-laws and confusion about Simplified Review and are possible reasons for the cool reception.
To reduce time-consuming litigation, MassDEP developed new policies to improve understanding and reduce repetitive litigation of issues so that resources can be freed up to work on compliance and enforcement. Policies completed in the past year include: the Enforcement Manual for Conservation Commissions (November 2004); adoption of Mouth of River Maps (March 1, 2005); and Distribution of Massachusetts Wildlife Habitat Protection Guidelines for inland resource areas (publication and distribution expected in January/February 2006). The Program has also run several workshops on the recent adoption of the stream crossing standards under Sections 401 and 404 of the Clean Water Act. Riverfront redevelopment and Restoration are some of the additional policies already underway.
High profile enforcement actions publicized through the media were accomplished to serve as a deterrent to further illegal fill. On June 1, 2005, the MassDEP issued a press release describing it's continued crackdown on illegal wetland destruction. By targeting 11 sites across the state for enforcement action, which involved the illegal filling and alteration of 15 acres of wetlands, the MassDEP assessed penalties totaling $984,100. Between December 2003 and June 2005, 83 higher-level enforcement actions for wetland violations have been taken, more than 35 acres of wetland ordered restored and $1.9 million in fines assessed in total.
To protect functions, MassDEP has ordered more than 35 acres of illegal wetland fill restored; resurrected the circuit rider program-conducting multiple trainings for Conservation Commissions on subjects including stormwater, enforcement, and stream crossings; adopted the Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS) as an approach to mapping wildlife habitat of potential regional or statewide importance (CAPS analyses have been completed for 50 communities in the Highlands and Housatonic Regions of Western Massachusetts, however, analyses for the rest of the state needs to be completed); obtained funding to initiate mapping and tracking of replication areas through our wetland loss mapping technology to gain a better understanding of how much replication is actually constructed (versus wetland loss) and how successful replication areas really are.
The Wetlands and Waterways Program Gets Results!
- New wetland aerial overflight and progress toward new wetland loss mapping;
- Clearer understanding of why wetland loss occurs;
- Obtained $600,000 3-year EPA grant to integrate wetland loss mapping with wetland permitting and enforcement databases.
- Promulgated new regulations and developed new policies to shift resources from permitting to compliance and enforcement.
- Assessed penalties totaling $984,100 at 11 sites involving 15 acres of illegal wetland fill.
- Furthered protection of functions by ordering 35 acres of wetlands restored, resurrected the circuit rider program and conducted multiple trainings, adopted the CAPs mapping to protect important wildlife habitat, and obtained funding to begin tracking success of replication areas.