Introduction

Wetlands provide many valuable functions on which we depend. When wetlands are filled or their functions are impaired, these benefits are lost. The wetlands section of the Environmental Progress Report addresses the causes and extent of wetlands loss as it impacts the state.

Determine extent of wetlands loss

Summary:

Indicator: Percent of state for which there is data on wetland loss

Why is this important?
MassDEP's main interest in protecting wetlands is to preserve the many functions that wetlands provide, including flood control, contaminant filtering, groundwater recharge and wildlife habitat. Determining the extent of wetland loss is therefore a critical first step in determining how well our wetlands are functioning and what more can be done to protect them.

How are we doing?
MassDEP's Wetlands Resource Mapping Project has accurately located and mapped wetlands throughout Massachusetts using an innovative GIS based computer program and a wetlands mapping database compiled since 1990. By comparing changes over time, these wetland maps can identify those wetlands that have been filled. Through this effort, MassDEP is developing reliable and verifiable data on freshwater wetland loss. Analysis of the 2001 imagery determined that over 850 acres of wetlands covering 70% of the state where aerial photo coverage was available were filled between 1990 and 2001. While this loss is a relatively small portion of the total wetlands in the state, it is far more than is acceptable.

Updates of the loss analysis are continuing. New flights that covered 100% of Massachusetts were conducted in April of 2005 to identify wetland loss that occurred between 2001 and 2005. Analysis of the 2005 information identified 1,473 sites where wetland loss occurred for a total of 482 acres. Depending on the region of the state, the rates of wetland loss have remained the same, or been slightly reduced over the two periods of 1990-2001 and 2001-2005. MassDEP's goal is to obtain new data about every 3-5 years in order to routinely record wetlands loss in the state.

Wetlands Loss by Flights

Years comparedAcresAcres lost/year
1990-2001840*see region
2001-2005482120

*70% of the state (At same rate of loss, 100% would be 1200 acres).

Wetlands Loss Comparison By Region

RegionAcres lost 1990-2001Acres lost/yearAcres lost 2001-2005Acres lost/year
NERO*22220-288722
SERO*54549-6826466
CERO**73248120
WEROno datano data4912
Total (w/o WERO)84093-120432108

*NERO and SERO were initially flown between 1990 and 1993 and so the analysis represents an 8-11 year period.
**CERO was initially flown in 1999 and so the analysis represents a 3-year period.

Workplan:

What's behind the numbers: Preserving the integrity of wetland systems is essential to maintaining wetland functions. For the past 17 years, MassDEP's Wetlands Program Mapping Project has inventoried and mapped wetland systems in Massachusetts with the use of aerial photography. The statewide wetland inventory, in turn, has been used to develop reliable and verifiable data on freshwater wetlands loss using a GIS-based system to compare aerial photographs of current wetlands with photos of past years. This information allows MassDEP to identify where the wetland losses are occurring, to identify what land uses cause the loss, to take enforcement action to require restoration of lost wetlands, and to develop strategies to reduce loss. After the initial analysis in 2004 of wetland changes from 1990-2001, MassDEP obtained new aerial photography in 2005 and conducted a new analysis to see where new loss has occurred (between 2001 and 2005), to determine if the causes have changed, and to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to reduce loss. The following is a sample of before and after wetland loss photos from aerial imagery acquired in April 2005.

Example:
2001 Base Map with Changed Wetlands in red 2005 Base Map with Changed Wetland in red

In the first wetlands loss analysis completed in 2004, MassDEP identified approximately 850 acres of loss in the 70% of the state that had aerial imagery available. Previously identified wetland boundaries were compared with those identified using more recent flyovers for all of the communities in the Northeast, Southeast and Central MassDEP regions. In 2006 the second wetland loss analysis was completed using 2005 aerial imagery. MassDEP identified approximately 482 acres of loss in 100% of the state.

Maintaining strong performance
MassDEP's project to identify all losses of wetlands in the state is a major step forward in wetlands protection. For the first time there is hard data on the extent of wetlands loss. This data allows MassDEP to develop solid information on the reasons for that loss and design plans to better protect wetlands. Prior to the development of this aerial photography database, information on wetlands loss was anecdotal at best and was limited to information contained in the MassDEP permitting and enforcement files. To date, investigation has shown that the paper files data is incomplete and does not reflect the true extent of wetlands loss. Using the innovative aerial mapping project, MassDEP now not only can identify an accurate assessment of true wetland loses, but can devise strategies to reduce losses and measure the effectiveness of those strategies to better protect wetlands. In 2006 a second wetland loss analysis was completed and 100% of the state was mapped for the first time. The accuracy of the wetland mapping and the photographic resolution was also improved using new techniques (e.g. stereo digital imagery), field verification, and quality control work. MassDEP intends to continually update the inventory of wetlands alterations so the efforts to improve wetlands protection can be accurately tracked and recorded.

Improving results
Identifying wetlands loss in the state has greatly increased MassDEP's capacity to protect wetlands. In addition to completing the analysis, MassDEP is working on three areas where the effort can be improved:

  1. Improve Hydrology Data Statewide: An additional hydrologic data layer is currently being created and added to the MassDEP's existing digital wetland mapping database. The hydrology data layer will identify hydrologic connections between mapped wetland polygons as well as hydrologic units within the polygons.
  2. Make Data Available: Through this ongoing effort, in conjunction with the Database Integration Project outputs, to make the data available to all stakeholders, MassDEP will obtain assistance in establishing the causes of wetland loss, and provide a valuable tool to for local compliance and enforcement efforts to ultimately reduce future wetland loss.
  3. Link Wetland Loss Mapping to Permit and Enforcement Database: MassDEP is working to significantly improve permitting and enforcement data management systems and link them to the wetland loss mapping database in order to evaluate statewide wetland changes and ultimately reduce wetland loss.

Detailed work plans
The specific activities listed below will be accomplished according to the following schedule:

  • Distribute Data to regions and public for use in Compliance and Enforcement activities:
    The Wetlands Program Mapping Project completed training of regions in use of computerized wetland loss methodology. Data was distributed to regions for use in Compliance and Enforcement in 2006 and 2007.
    1. To increase public awareness and input, the MassDEP web page was updated with a description of the Wetlands Mapping Project and its original findings of June 2004. Also, a complete posting of wetland loss maps has been provided on GIS in the physical resources index as "wetland change".
    2. In 2004 maps and analysis on wetlands loss were provided to each community analyzed to date on CD and MassDEP encouraged communities to utilize this information to take compliance and enforcement actions. The wetland loss mapping has now been added as a MassGIS layer available to the public.
    3. An ongoing effort has been underway to inform and update MassDEP staff/management, EOEEA, MACC, Conservation Commissions and the General Public about the Wetlands Mapping Project and its findings.
  • Link Wetland Loss Mapping to Permit and Enforcement Database:
    MassDEP is working to significantly improve permitting and enforcement data management systems and link them to the wetland loss mapping database in order to evaluate statewide wetland changes and ultimately reduce wetland loss. The new integrated wetland database system is scheduled to be online in Fall 2008 for MassDEP internal use. Future phases, if funded, will include development of a public tool for Conservation Commission use. It is undetermined at this time when historical data will be migrated to the new database. Note that analysis of historic data will not be as accurate as analysis of present and future data due to data content and quality.
  • Update data in future years:
    Efforts will be undertaken to schedule the next wetland aerial photography mapping update and the geographic scope of the area to be covered. Analysis of wetland loss will follow each mapping update. Wetlands aerial photography mapping is estimated to occur on a 3-5 year interval. The next full state over flight is anticipated to occur between Spring 2008 - 2010.

back to Wetlands index

Identify causes of wetlands loss

Summary:

Indicator: Identify principal causes of wetlands loss

Why is this important?
Knowing the principal causes of wetland loss will allow MassDEP to take action to reduce filling of wetlands by directing efforts where they are likely to be the most effective. If the majority of wetland loss is from illegal activity, for example, then changes to regulations are not likely to effectively reduce losses. Strategies to reduce losses from agriculture are also likely to be different from strategies to reduce acres filled by commercial developers.

Agriculture has dropped from 32% to 17% of wetlands loss.

How are we doing?
MassDEP has analyzed the collected data and determined principal causes of wetland fill. Now MassDEP can effectively intervene to better protect the state's wetlands. The most significant finding from the 2001 imagery analysis is that a very large portion of the identified fill was unpermitted. This discovery changed MassDEP's focus and has resulted in a shift toward compliance and enforcement strategies. For instance, annual staff resources directed to compliance and enforcement increased from 12.5% in 2003 to 20.2% in 2007.

MassDEP has also examined the areas of loss to see what types of activities account for the most change. In the 2001 imagery analysis, residential and commercial activities account for about 41% of the wetland losses identified. In the 2005 imagery analysis, commercial and residential activities continue to be a large cause of wetland loss, at a combined 32% (i.e. 12.5% and 19.3% respectively). The 2005 imagery analysis shows that while commercial and residential development continue to be a large cause of wetland loss, loss from agricultural and cranberry bog activities dropped from 32% (2001 imagery analysis) to approximately 17% (2005 imagery analysis). Assessing the factors that have contributed to the identified losses enables MassDEP to reduce losses in the future by targeting compliance, enforcement, outreach and training to sectors contributing to the greatest losses.

In the future, MassDEP plans to continue reviewing wetland loss data for all towns by updating and automating the permit tracking system. By electronically linking wetland permitting data to the wetland loss maps, fills that are permitted can be distinguished from those that are illegal and causes of wetland loss will be readily identified. MassDEP plans to update the data regularly with new overflights because wetland loss patterns change. The most recent statewide aerial photography was obtained in the Spring of 2005 and subsequent flyovers are scheduled to occur every 3-5 years.

Workplan:

What's behind the numbers: MassDEP has been developing reliable and verifiable data on wetlands loss and the causes of loss using aerial imagery since 2001 when we conducted the first analysis of wetland loss. In 2005 updated aerial imagery was obtained and new analyses was conducted to see where wetland loss occurred between 2001 and 2005 and to determine the causes of loss. These efforts are important so MassDEP can target the areas and types of projects that most frequently result in loss, and develop regulatory, compliance, enforcement, and other strategies to reduce the loss. To improve MassDEP's ability to determine the causes of loss, the Database Integration Project has been developed that will link permitting and ultimately enforcement data to wetland loss mapping. When complete, this updated database system will provide the tools to allow MassDEP to determine with more clarity and in an updated and timely manner, those losses that are permitted, the type of project that was permitted, and if those losses that are permitted or unpermitted. Such information will allow the program to shift accordingly to respond to changing conditions. Previous efforts to determine causes of wetland loss involved conducting a review of existing files in a sample of cities and towns across the state (92) to estimate the extent of permitted and unpermitted fill and to assess the factors contributing to losses. This effort was very labor intensive.

The first analysis to identify the causes of wetlands loss was completed in June 2004. Approximately 850 acres of loss was identified in over 70% of the state where data was available based on the 2001 aerial imagery. In the sample of towns for which permitting data was collected (about 92 towns), agriculture, commercial and residential development represented about 74% of the wetland loss. Based on the 92-town survey, 58% of the acreage of loss was determined to be illegal or likely illegal, 15% was permitted and 27% fell into other miscellaneous categories (such as exempt and mapping error). Note that the sample of towns for which this analysis was done was not a random sample, so the actual statewide breakdown for permitted and unpermitted may vary from these estimates. Obviously this data only indicates general information for the state; individual communities will vary -- possibly significantly -- from these estimated percentages.

Based on the data, MassDEP targeted the compliance and enforcement efforts towards the sectors where the loss was the greatest. Additionally, enforcement efforts were targeted toward sectors causing the highest amounts of wetland loss.

Analysis on additional aerial imagery taken in 2005 shows that commercial and residential development continues to be a large cause of wetland loss at a combined 32%. Also, the loss from agricultural and cranberry bog activities has dropped from 32% to approximately 17%. Based on the 2006 analysis, agricultural (including cranberry), commercial and residential loss combined have dropped from 74% of the wetland loss in 2004 to 49% of the wetland loss in 2006. There is a notable increase in the percentage of loss where the cause cannot be determined from the photos (i.e. 21% in 2004 to 40% in 2006). The Data Integration Project, when complete (estimated Fall 2008), will allow MassDEP to more effectively understand as to which wetland loss sites are permitted (or unpermitted) and what the causes of loss are.

Change Type2006 %(1)2004 %(2)
Agriculture7.232.3
Commercial Development12.518.7
Cranberry Bog Activity9.6See agriculture
Other22.421.0
Gravel Operation5.65.5
New Road2.9 
Dock or Pier.08 
Residential Development19.322.5
Transportation Infrastructure2.3 
Clearing - Unknown reason16.4 
Filling - Unknown reason1.6 
Total Acres482637

(1) 100% of Massachusetts from 2005 imagery (482 acres of loss between 2001-2005)
(2) 75% of total Wetland Loss in SERO, NERO and CERO from 2001 imagery (637 acres of loss between 1990-2001in the 92 towns where permitting files were reviewed)

Causes of Wetland Loss as a Percentage of Total Wetland Loss

Other findings of the June 2006 data analysis include:
* The largest area of wetland change occurred in the southeast (62%), followed by the northeast (21%), central (14%) and western (3%).
* Similar to 2004, wooded deciduous swamps were the types of wetlands most frequently impacted (i.e. percentage of total area lost was 45% in 2004 to 38% in 2006). The next most frequently impacted wetland type was shallow marsh meadow (19%) and wooded swamp mixed tree (18%). This represents a slight change from 2004, in that although wooded swamp mixed tree was the second most frequently impacted type (17%), shallow marsh meadow was only 9% of the loss in that analysis.
* Residential projects accounted for the most wetland change areas (19%) with commercial accounting for the next largest identified change (12.5%). The percentage of wetland loss due to unknown reasons increased from 20% to 40%. Over 80% of wetland loss areas were less than 0.5 acres in size, while the most large wetland loss polygons greater than 2 acres were found in the southeast region.

Maintaining strong performance
The 2004 wetland loss analysis had the benefit of a labor-intensive 92-town file review to gain data on causes of wetland loss and whether losses were permitted or illegal. While that effort gave MassDEP invaluable data on wetland losses, the method was too inefficient and labor intensive to repeat the same level of research. As a result, MassDEP initiated the Data Integration Project which will substantially improve our ability to determine the causes and permitting status of wetland loss on an ongoing basis. The wetland loss data includes all alterations of wetlands, not just the ones for which permits were sought. A key finding of the June 2004 analysis was that unpermitted fill was significant. As such, a shift of effort toward enforcement and public education about the new loss identification capability was initiated. The goal of this effort was to maximize deterrence and prevent future unpermitted activity. MassDEP will continue to work to deter unpermitted fill and minimize permitted wetlands losses.

Improving results
An updated and more accurate method of identifying wetlands loss and conducting data analysis to identify the factors contributing to the loss is ongoing. New aerial imagery was obtained in 2005 and is currently being analyzed. Also underway is a significant effort to link MassDEP's databases to the wetland loss maps. As MassDEP determines which factors are associated with wetlands loss, and which communities and/or programs have worked well to limit losses, decisions can be made about changes that are needed to reduce losses in the future. As MassDEP conducts this analysis we need to remember that the data is based on historic information and may not fully reflect current conditions. Future fly-overs will allow updates to the current data and MassDEP will remain responsive to wetland loss trends and update wetland protection efforts.

Detailed Work Plan
Complete 2005 Imagery Analysis
a) To determine the causes of loss in NERO, SERO, CERO, aerial data imagery was developed and 92-town analysis undertaken (July 2004).
b) An update of the causes of loss for all of Massachusetts has been completed. (December 2006)
c) MassDEP will analyze causes of loss on a periodic basis using new wetland loss data, approximately every three years (ongoing).

Conduct Analysis to Determine Other Significantly Correlated Factors
a) Using the findings of the data analysis to identify factors that may contribute to wetland loss, determine whether new strategies should be implemented to reduce wetland loss (ongoing).

Link Permitting Data to GIS
a) Develop an electronic link between the wetland loss maps and wetland permit applications so that the causes of loss can be more readily and visually determined (Fall 2008)

back to Wetlands index

Reduce unpermitted wetlands loss

Summary:

Indicator: Acres lost through unpermitted activity

Why is this important?
The two principal ways MassDEP can protect wetlands are by preventing unpermitted losses and carefully controlling the permitted losses. Preventing unpermitted losses is particularly important since these losses tend to be more damaging to the environment. Restoration of filled wetlands is often expensive and is not always possible. Prevention of unpermitted activity is therefore a high priority to MassDEP.

How are we doing?
In 2004 MassDEP completed the first wetland loss analysis, which was based on 2001 aerial imagery and then compared to baseline aerial imagery acquired 10 years prior. In addition, a study was conducted to obtain further information on the permitting status of wetland loss in a sample of 92 towns in Massachusetts. This study estimated that about 58% of the identified historic losses were the result of unpermitted or possibly unpermitted activity . This is considerably more unpermitted loss than was expected, given Massachusetts's history of strong wetlands protection. To address this problem, MassDEP used the wetland loss aerial imagery as a tool to increase enforcement efforts starting in late 2003. As a result, MassDEP has undertaken enforcement of 42 cases of wetland loss identified through aerial imagery. To date, this enforcement initiative resulted in the assessment of over 2 million dollars in penalties and restoration of 54 acres of wetlands. Historically, MassDEP has expended less than 10% of its staff time on enforcement and prevention of illegal fill. As a result of the wetland loss analysis and corresponding enforcement actions, MassDEP concluded that there was a need for a reallocation of program functions by reducing permitting task time and increasing time spent on avoiding illegal wetlands loss through compliance and enforcement. Successful strategies for reducing time spent on permitting functions has been to issue more affirmations of Conservation Commission decisions and provide significant technical assistance via the Wetlands Circuit Rider Program to Conservation Commissions.

This enforcement initiative is ongoing based on the new overflight of the state in April 2005 to measure the extent of continued wetland loss. In the near future, MassDEP expects to increase the ability to quickly distinguish those fills that are unpermitted from those that are permitted with the wetland data integration project. However, until the new integrated database system is completed, we will not have the ability to easily measure the extent of unpermitted vs. permitted fill. MassDEP expects to begin the analysis of the integrated data in 2008.

(1) While the sample of towns was not selected randomly and we cannot confidently extrapolate this data to the entire state, we believe the percentage of likely unpermitted activity found in the sample is likely representative of statewide conditions.

Workplan:

What's behind the numbers: MassDEP continues to focus increased effort on identifying and taking enforcement action to address unpermitted wetland loss. Although current information does not allow MassDEP to determine whether loss locations state-wide were permitted or unpermitted, previous efforts conducted in an investigation of 92 towns for which wetlands loss data has been collected, determined the proportion of losses resulting from unpermitted and permitted activity. Of the 92 towns with a total of 637 acres of loss, 369 acres of the losses were discovered to be, or likely to be, from illegal activity, 95 acres of wetland loss were determined to be permitted, and the explanation for the remainder of loss was undetermined (e.g. the wetlands were not mapped as such by the town, the files do not exist, mapping errors, or projects may have been exempt etc.). The towns selected for these analyses were not statistically random, but included towns of different development densities and with varied wetlands loss amounts and types. While this data gives an overall feel for the wetland land use changes MassDEP does not consider it to be statistically valid. As such, any attempt to extrapolate these findings to towns in across the state should be done with caution and would be of limited value. Nevertheless, the analysis has revealed important information that should enhance policy choices, particularly evidence about the significant extent of illegal fill. In response to this information, MassDEP applied for and received a grant from EPA to improve data management capabilities that will improve our ability to determine whether activities are permitted or unpermitted. See details on these efforts in the workplan for Improving Wetland Loss Data.

Wetlands Change Acreage by Disposition (2004)

Maintaining strong performance
The data that has been developed to date has substantially increased MassDEP's ability both to find and to prevent illegal wetlands alterations. In the past, illegal wetlands loss has been identified based on staff knowledge, permit reviews, and tips. No comprehensive effort to identify illegal wetlands loss has previously occurred.

The initial effort to reduce illegal wetlands alteration was based on deterrence: if people know that illegal activity can be identified, and that the consequences for illegal fill will be severe, they will be far less likely to engage in illegal activity. This strategy has used high profile enforcement actions to achieve both objectives at the same time. Publicity through the media and a wide variety of meetings and publications of significant enforcement actions let people know MassDEP has a new aerial photography capability that very accurately tracks areas of wetlands change. MassDEP has prosecuted cases with this new capability that has resulted in stiff penalties, including requirements to restore the areas illegally altered. Close coordination with local Conservation Commissions is an important factor in a successful effort to reduce illegal fill. In 2004, MassDEP provided CDs to 243 towns where mapping had been completed and analyzed, resulting in over 900 maps showing impact and/or alteration. This effort enables towns to know its rate and location of loss, and to identify sites where enforcement actions may be warranted. Updated wetland loss mapping is available now through the Internet at MassGIS.

MassDEP's wetland loss program has yielded impressive results in addressing illegal fill. The table below shows the penalties and restoration required in enforcement cases that were identified through our aerial imagery to date, with many more still under investigation.

Enforcement cases identified through aerial imagery program

Date# Wetlands Loss CasesPenalties*Acres Restored
7/1/03-6/30/0410650,75023.52
7/1/04 - 6/30/05121,104,10021.41
7/1/05 - 6/30/068102,5003.35
7/1/06-6/30/0712186,5005.68
TOTAL42$2,043,85053.96

* Note that this total includes nearly $400,000 in suspended penalties and one SEP valued at $12,000.

Although aerial imagery is only updated every 3-5 years, MassDEP's enforcement efforts are ongoing and capture numerous violations that are identified through other means such as program permitting inspections and coordination with external parties. In SFY 06, a baseline analysis was conducted that captures MassDEP entire Wetlands Program Enforcement effort. The analysis was updated in SFY07. Results are as follows and include the aerial imagery enforcement data listed in the table above for FY06 and FY07:

  • Over the course of SFY07, BRP ordered restoration or replication of 1,055,748 square feet (over 24 acres) of wetlands, including Bordering Vegetated Wetlands (BVW), Bordering Land Subject to Flooding (BLSF), Land Under Water (LUW) (109,096 square feet) and riverfront areas (104,120 square feet) and 7,543 linear feet of bank at a total of 82 different sites across the state. This greatly exceeds the annual SFY06 baseline of 378,873 square feet of wetlands and 1,880 linear feet of banks restored or replicated at 33 different sites across the state. (However, this jump may be due to under-reporting of restoration cases in SFY06. There were probably closer to 50 cases in SFY06. )
  • During SFY07, BRP ordered stabilization of 33 construction sites to prevent erosion, protecting down gradient water bodies and acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat from sedimentation damage. Of these, 16 are already included above with the restoration cases. (This exceeds the SFY06 baseline of 25, but underreporting in SFY06 may account for some of the increase).

MassDEP intends to continue aggressive enforcement efforts this year, with a heightened focus on particular sectors and/or areas of concern. Development of compliance strategies that will combine enforcement and other tools, such as outreach, education, and support of Conservation Commissions will also work toward the goal of reduced illegal alterations of wetlands. In addition to these targeted enforcement actions, MassDEP will continue to pursue enforcement as appropriate for violations discovered during the course of the year from MassDEP inspections, referrals from Conservation Commissions, or tips.

Improving results

  1. Data Base Improvements: A significant effort is underway to improve the ability to link data from permitted projects and enforcement actions with GIS identified wetland losses and more easily determine which losses are permitted and which are illegal.
  2. Continued Coordination with Conservation Commissions: MassDEP continues to support Conservation Commissions through enforcement support, and by providing more training opportunities on permitting matters through the Wetlands Circuit Rider Program that was revitalized in 2005. By January of 2006, Circuit Riders had connected with 100% of the state's Conservation Commissions. In FY07, they held 74 regional regulatory and technical workshops and Conservation Commission network meetings, conducted 148 workshops at regularly scheduled Conservation Commission meetings, and answered over 2000 technical and regulatory questions from Commissions, consultants and the public at large. The Circuit Riders will continue with this impressive program in the upcoming year.
  3. Target Enforcement to Send Deterrence Message: Case investigation of illegal wetlands loss has gotten underway in earnest. Regional wetlands staff and strike force staff are investigating cases and identifying new cases for investigation. MassDEP is addressing existing unlawful alterations by aggressively identifying, investigating and pursuing enforcement actions where appropriate, shifting current levels of effort to increase the percentage of time spent on compliance and enforcement; and creating deterrence by informing the public of the ability to easily detect wetland loss. (ongoing)
  4. Compliance Plans for Sectors or Areas with the Largest Amounts of Illegal Loss: The present goal is to develop compliance strategies to avoid future loss. The data analysis so far suggests that most change occurs within sectors that have representatives who regularly interact with MassDEP in training, on advisory committees and in other forums, e.g. Homebuilders Association of Massachusetts (HBAM), Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association (CCCGA) and National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP). MassDEP will continue to work with these groups to develop effective wetlands loss prevention strategies.(ongoing)
  5. Shift in Work Load So More Time is Available to Work on Prevention of Illegal Wetland Loss: MassDEP has been analyzing the time the Wetlands Program spends on all of its functions to be more responsive to the data that is being collected (i.e. 15% of wetland loss is permitted; over 50% is illegal or likely illegal based on 2004 wetland loss results). As the initial wetland loss analysis was completed MassDEP concluded that there was a need for realignment of program functions to reduce the amount of time spent on permitting tasks in order to redirect time and resources to identifying, addressing and avoiding illegal wetlands loss through compliance and enforcement. The table below shows that MassDEP has been successful at shifting the workload to conduct more compliance and enforcement.

Percentage of Wetland Program Staff Time

TaskFY 2003FY 2004FY 2005FY 2006FY 2007
Permit Review50.546.143.742.842.8
Enforcement8.614.016.614.714.3
Compliance3.97.08.46.85.8

Detailed work plan

  1. Database Improvements: Significant progress has been made in improving the electronic link between wetland maps and wetland permit databases. MassDEP has completed a Data Needs Analysis and hired a contractor to build a new and improved data system that will allow us to determine more readily where wetland loss is occurring, and where it is permitted or illegal (October 2008).
  2. Update Wetland Loss Analysis: New aerial photography was obtained in 2005 and an updated wetland loss analysis was completed in 2006. The results are summarized in the Extent of Wetland Loss and Causes of Wetland Loss Workplans.
  3. Improve Accuracy and Completeness of Data: The accuracy of the wetland mapping and the photographic resolution has improved since the 2001 flyover analysis by using new techniques, field verification and quality control work. Refined photographic techniques and improved signature change software enable MassDEP to identify wetlands with greater accuracy and to identify hydrologic connections between wetlands.
  4. Improve Hydrology Data Statewide: The hydrologic data layer to MassDEP's existing digital wetland mapping database is being improved and updated on a 2-year schedule. The hydrology data layer will identify hydrologic connections between mapped wetland polygons (scheduled to be completed in 2009).
  5. Make Data Available to the Conservation Commissions and the Public: Through this ongoing effort to make the data available to the public, MassDEP will obtain assistance in establishing the causes of wetland loss, and provide a valuable tool to for local compliance and enforcement efforts to ultimately reduce future wetland loss. The wetland loss maps are now available on the MassGIS web site.
  6. Schedule Next Overflight: MassDEP plans to re-evaluate wetland loss approximately every 2-3 years. The planning and implementation of this effort will be ongoing. (Next flight 2008-2010).

back to Wetlands index

Minimize permitted wetlands loss

Summary:

Indicator: Total acres of permitted loss

Why is this important?
Recent studies show that wetlands fill is likely the largest single cause of direct wetlands loss. However, local conservation commissions and MassDEP permit some wetlands fill since certain activities are exempt from the wetlands rules such as land in agricultural use and utility maintenance and repair. Other activities that are "limited projects" such as road improvements and agriculture are authorized by regulation to exceed the limit of fill allowed. In certain circumstances, up to 5,000 square feet (sf) of wetlands alteration are allowed if the alteration cannot be avoided. In most cases the loss must be minimized, and the acreage and functions of the wetlands must be replaced. Wetland creation is difficult and expensive, and studies show that attempts to replace lost wetlands functions are often unsuccessful.

How are we doing?
MassDEP does not have conclusive data on the extent of permitted wetlands losses. Since most of the permitting in the state occurs at the local level, the extent of permitted wetlands alterations is not always provided to MassDEP. Over 8,500 permitting decisions are made each year. Most of those decisions are not recorded electronically, so compiling data from these files is not easy. In the sample review of 92 towns completed in 2004, about 15%, or 95 acres of the 635 acres filled were likely permitted. MassDEP also found that over 50% of the fill was illegal or likely illegal. Based on that data MassDEP concluded there was a need for a reallocation of program functions by reducing permitting task time in order to increase efforts to identify, address, and avoid illegal wetlands loss through compliance and enforcement. The annual regional Wetland Program staff time allocation for permit review was reduced from 50.5% in FY2003, to 42.8% in FY2006, and 42.3% in FY07. Correspondingly, regional staff time dedicated to both compliance and enforcement has increased from a combined 12.5% in FY2003, to 21.5% in FY2006, and 20.2% in FY07. Reduction in time spent on permitting tasks while maintaining wetlands protection has resulted in several regulatory and policy changes. MassDEP also began a 3-year effort in 2005 using an EPA grant to link electronic applications with digital wetlands loss maps to geolocate permitted alterations, monitor replication success, and identify illegal fill for enforcement action.

Reducing wetland loss requires identifying the amount of wetland loss and determining the amount caused by unpermitted activities. MassDEP's progress toward that goal and the timeline for achieving the goal is shown in the table below.

TaskKey DataYear scheduled or completed
Wetland Loss Analysis Completed based on 2001 photos.850 acres lost (70% of state analyzed from 2001 photos for all regions compared to baseline photos taken between 1990-1999 depending on region)2004
92-Town Wetland Permit file review complete15% wetland loss permitted in 92 towns analyzed.2004 (2001-02 research)
New aerial photos obtained statewide 2005
Wetland Loss Analysis Updated based on 2005 photos/ Pursuit of Enforcement and restoration482 acres lost (100% of state analyzed over 4 years - 2005 photos compared to 2001 photos)December 2006
Data Integration Project CompleteOnce new system is online, we will begin to update % permitted vs. unpermitted (est. 2009)2008
Increase electronic filingsTabulate data on % permitted vs. unpermittedFuture years

Workplan:

What's behind the numbers: Wetland loss is permitted through local Orders of Conditions (OOCs), Superseding Orders of Conditions (SOCs) and Variances. MassDEP knows the amount of wetland impact approved through Variances since those are rarely issued. However, we do not yet have a good tracking system for the amount of wetland loss approved through OOCs and SOCs. During the 2001-02 investigation of files to determine permitted versus unpermitted wetland loss described in the Identify Causes of Loss Workplan, MassDEP reviewed 92 towns (23% of the state) with 637 acres of loss and discovered that only 95 acres of wetland loss in this sample were demonstrated to be permitted. This represents about 15% of the total loss in the 92 Towns. From the aerial analysis of 70% of the state completed in 2004, we know that 850 acres of wetland were lost during that time period. If these numbers were extrapolated to the entire state, MassDEP estimates that only 127 acres of wetland loss out of the total 850 acres lost was approved statewide in the permitting process.

In the 2006 wetland loss analysis, MassDEP found that 482 acres of wetlands were lost across the state between 2001 and 2005. MassDEP does not have any data, however, on how much of that loss is permitted and how much is illegal. In lieu of another labor-intensive file review, MassDEP is working toward substantial improvements to the wetlands electronic databases to provide a much more comprehensive understanding of how much loss is permitted.

The existing permitting process has prevented a much greater amount of loss over the years than would be the case if there were no such permitting process. However, additional emphasis must be placed on improvements to MassDEP's permitting functions. The schedule for the next analysis of wetlands loss, including the analysis of permitted versus unpermitted wetland loss, is shown in the table below.

TaskKey DataYear scheduled or completed
Wetland Loss Analysis Completed based on 2001 photos.850 acres lost (70% of state analyzed from 2001 photos for all regions compared to baseline photos taken between 1990-1999 depending on region)2004
92-Town Wetland Permit file review complete15% wetland loss permitted in 92 towns analyzed.2004 (2001-02 research)
New aerial photos obtained statewide 2005
Wetland Loss Analysis Updated based on 2005 photos/ Pursuit of Enforcement and restoration482 acres lost (100% of state analyzed over 4 years - 2005 photos compared to 2001 photos)December 2006
Data Integration Project CompleteOnce new system is online, we will begin to update % permitted vs. unpermitted (est. 2009)2008
Increase electronic filingsTabulate data on % permitted vs. unpermittedFuture years

During permitting, the issuing authority (i.e. the local Conservation Commission or in the case of an appeal or a variance, MassDEP) must consider frequent requests by applicants to conduct activities that would result in wetland loss. Sometimes, but not always, applicants are required to avoid and minimize wetland losses before replication will be approved, since replication frequently fails. To reduce permitted vegetated wetland loss, MassDEP, through regulations promulgated in March 2005, requires avoidance and minimization of wetlands loss in every application. The first step, avoidance, involves evaluation of reasonable project designs that attempt to locate projects away from wetlands in order to avoid loss. Project design considerations can include moving the construction to a different part of the site or changing the design in order to reduce the size of project impacts. After taking all steps possible to avoid wetland loss, applicants need to consider all possible minimization measures including steepening slopes, and depending on the scale/nature of the project, construction of retaining walls or bridge spans to reduce wetland loss. Replacement of lost wetland functions through replication should only be considered for unavoidable losses that cannot be further reduced by redesign of the project. In addition, when replication is approved for unavoidable wetland loss it must be designed, constructed, and monitored successfully. In the EPA grant MassDEP received for wetland database integration, development of a digital database of wetland replication/restoration sites was proposed and approved. Through this effort MassDEP intends to evaluate how best to utilize aerial imagery to monitor wetland replication/restoration sites and to increase monitoring of replication/restoration sites. Additional data will be collected at the conclusion of the wetland database integration project (due in 2008), when the new data system is brought online.

Permitting activities within MassDEP must be efficient and must focus the time available to MassDEP staff on the activities that will provide the highest level of protection. In 2003, MassDEP analyzed the time the Wetlands Program spent on all of its functions and found that 50% of time is spent on permitting functions. The Bureau of Resource Protection (BRP) concluded that there was a need for realignment of program functions to reduce the amount of time spent on permitting tasks in order to undertake or increase tasks oriented towards identifying, addressing and avoiding illegal wetlands loss through compliance and enforcement. Efforts were taken to maintain wetland protection provided by permitting efforts while reducing the time spent on such efforts by making them more efficient. In 2004, MassDEP convened a Wetlands Advisory Committee and a smaller working group, the Wetlands Advisory Subcommittee, to consider how to improve program efficiency and still provide protection for wetlands.

As noted in the table below, a substantial shift in staff time from permitting to compliance and enforcement has occurred since 2003 in response to the data analysis.

STAFF TIME ALLOCATION - 2003 STAFF TIME ALLOCATION - 2007

REGIONAL STAFF TIME ALLOCATION 2003-2007

Task% Time (2003)% Time (2006)% Time (2007)
Permitting/Appeals50.542.842.3
Policy/Reg. Development21.82010.5
Technical Assistance/Outreach4.1713.2
Compliance3.96.85.8
Enforcement8.614.714.3
Other11913.9

Maintaining strong performance
The Wetland Protection Act Regulations at 310 CMR 10.00 have been partly successful at controlling alterations because of the strict rule that no more than 5,000 square feet of vegetated wetland can be lost except for certain "limited projects" and variance cases, and that the loss must be replicated. Projects that might otherwise have incorporated larger fills have been designed to comply with the standards established in the regulations. Also, because of the sustained effort at the local and state level into developing permit standards, reviewing projects, writing permit conditions and monitoring construction, there is likely much less alteration than there otherwise would be. Nonetheless, MassDEP needs to explore ways that can improve permitting to further reduce wetland loss.

Improving results/Detailed workplans
The goals to reduce permitted wetland loss are as follows:

  1. Improving the permitting process and increasing deterrence of illegal fill through proposed revisions to MassDEP regulations has been a significant priority over the past several years. On March 1, 2005 MassDEP implemented a regulatory change to simplify permit review in the outer 50-feet of the buffer zone if the inner 50-feet is protected. This regulatory change is intended to move construction away from the wetland boundary while improving the efficiency of buffer zone case processing, since buffer zone cases are estimated to be between 30% and 60% of the regional caseload. Unfortunately, to date, only 14 Simplified Review applications have been received. MassDEP will analyze the simplified permit review process by the end of 2007 pursuant to the sunset clause to determine if changes should be implemented to improve its use or if it should be eliminated.
  2. Other permitting changes made recently include new language clarifying the avoidance and minimization procedures that applicants must follow when altering bordering vegetated wetlands (i.e. avoid and minimize first, then mitigate for unavoidable loss); improving the efficiency of the appeal process at the regional and adjudicatory level (New regulations promulgated March 2005); new Water Quality regulations (December 2006); and new Stormwater regulations (currently in the rulemaking process).
  3. To further reduce staff time allocated to permitting, MassDEP adjusted the permitting workload through issuance of more affirmations of Conservation Commission decisions. MassDEP achieved a statewide average 42% affirmation rate during state fiscal year 2006 (July 1, 2005 - June 30, 2006) and 30% during state fiscal year 2007 (July 1, 2006 - June 30, 2007).
  4. Continued analysis of data gathered from the aerial photos and wetlands loss maps will significantly improved data management once the EPA grant project is complete. This information, coupled together with feedback from Conservation Commissions will enable us to determine whether additional regulatory changes are needed to further reduce wetland loss. Currently the main priority is to reduce unpermitted wetland loss since it represents a much larger percentage of overall loss (Enforcement ongoing, data management project complete October 2008).
  5. In the future, MassDEP plans to continue to use current wetland loss data to work together with Conservation Commissions to improve requirements for wetland creation and dramatically increase compliance inspections during construction and at the Certificate of Compliance stage to achieve no net loss. Through significant improvements in the database and the introduction of electronic applications, MassDEP will be developing a link between permits issued and information from those permits (e.g. amount of wetland loss permitted and location), and wetland losses identified on wetlands maps. MassDEP expects that this will increase the ability to distinguish those fills that are permitted, to know where replication areas were required, and to focus on evaluating success through site inspections and/or aerial photo analysis. After developing and implementing strategies to evaluate success based on the data, MassDEP can conduct additional photographic and data analysis to determine whether the rate of wetland creation success authorized by Orders of Conditions has changed and to establish whether there has been a reduction in permitted wetland loss. New data will be tabulated annually as it is collected.(October 2008 - initial evaluation of historic permitted vs. unpermitted wetland loss)
  6. As part of MassDEP's on-going efforts to provide training to conservation commissions, the Wetlands Circuit Rider Program continues to meet and work with Conservation Commissions. These expanding efforts are reflected in the staff time allocation tables that show an increased percentage of annual staff time dedicated to Technical Assistance and Outreach from 4.1% in 2003 to 6.8% in 2006 and 13.2% in 2007.
  7. It may be possible to avoid some litigation by providing policies on subjects to improve efficiency and consistency and to avoid litigating the same issues repeatedly. Such policy development helps guide Conservation Commissions in issuing permits, helps applicants understand what will be expected of them during the permitting process, and frees up resources to work on other priorities such as compliance inspections and enforcement. MassDEP will prioritize policy development to be effective in reducing litigation, and has several recent accomplishments:
  8. MassDEP, consultants, and conservation commissions all have a role to play in improving the performance of replicated areas so that functions that are lost through permitted alterations can be replaced. In 2002, MassDEP published the Massachusetts Inland Wetland Replication Guidelines. By implementing the improved wetland database integration work plan and using the innovative wetland loss mapping technology, MassDEP expects to develop a methodology for monitoring whether or not replication areas are being built and how successful they are. (MassDEP can begin to track this data when the data integration project is complete, and the system is brought online - October 2008)

back to Wetlands index

Protect wetlands functions

Summary:

Indicator: Percent of state mapped for habitat of potential regional and statewide importance

Why is this important?
We protect wetlands to preserve the important functions they provide - recharge and protection of public and private water supply & groundwater; storm damage prevention and flood control, prevention of pollution, and providing food, shelter, overwintering and nesting/spawning habitat for fisheries, shellfish, and wildlife habitat. Destruction of wetlands destroys the functions those wetlands serve, but wetlands can also be harmed in other ways. Fragmentation of wetlands can interfere with the wildlife habitat functions of that wetland far more than the few square feet of fill involved. Wetland functions can be compromised by actions beyond the wetlands themselves- for example, cutting off access to uplands impedes movement through wildlife corridors. MassDEP currently does not have a good overall means of measuring changes in wetlands functions, and believes that the acres of wetlands whose functions have been impaired far exceeds the amount of wetlands directly filled.

How are we doing?
Progress is being made on creating a functional assessment. In March 2006, MassDEP issued the Massachusetts Wildlife Habitat Protection Guidelines for Inland Resource Areas (PDF file) which introduced a new tool developed by UMASS Amherst. The Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS) is now MassDEP's standard for mapping wildlife habitat of potential regional or statewide importance. This tool requires a statewide mapping effort that is currently under way. Maps have been developed for approximately 50 towns in Western Massachusetts.

In September 2006, EPA awarded MassDEP's Wetlands Program a new grant allowing UMass to validate mapping for the 50 towns previously done, and to produce maps for 40 additional towns. UMass began work under this grant in January 2007 and at the conclusion of this grant in January 2008, maps will be completed for 90 towns in Western Massachusetts.

Workplan:

What's behind the numbers: The long-term goal of MassDEP's wetlands protection efforts is to preserve the many functions that wetlands provide, including:

  • filtration of pollutants and recharge to public and private water supplies and groundwater;
  • reduction of runoff velocity and provision of storage thus preventing storm damage and providing flood control;
  • prevention of pollution;
  • providing food, shelter, overwintering and nesting/spawning habitat for fisheries, shellfish, and wildlife habitat.

When wetlands are filled, they no longer provide these important functions. However, wetland functions can be impaired without directly destroying the wetland. For example, a roadway crossing that disrupts a waterway serving as a connection between two wetlands might impair important wildlife habitat functions. Removal of vegetation and the associated canopy can change the temperature or vegetation distribution and make the wetland no longer hospitable to certain types of wildlife. None of these changes would be revealed through an examination limited to the destroyed wetland acreage.

MassDEP has determined that direct wetland destruction is occurring frequently than once thought, so the first priority is preventing the direct destruction of wetlands. Once a wetland is destroyed, it may be difficult or impossible to replace. Preventing direct destruction will allow a more comprehensive approach to protect wetlands functions. While MassDEP can assess protection of functions in individual permitting decisions, there is not a comprehensive approach to assessing wetlands functions that can be used to direct MassDEP's regulatory work.

There are two components needed to protect wetland functions: 1) MassDEP needs to develop a method to assess functions and determine how the regulatory program should be structured to protect those functions, and 2) for projects permitted to alter wetlands (e.g., projects that have avoided and minimized wetlands impacts to the extent possible and have met other regulatory requirements) assurances need to be provided that the functions will be replaced.

Progress is ongoing for the first part of functional assessment. MassDEP is supporting work conducted by UMASS Amherst to develop the Comprehensive Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS). In March 2006, MassDEP issued the Massachusetts Wildlife Habitat Protection Guidelines for Inland Resource Areas (PDF file). During the development of the guidance, the Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System (CAPS) was adopted as a comprehensive approach to mapping wildlife habitat of potential regional or statewide importance. The CAPS is an objective, dynamic, and flexible tool and approach for assessing the ecological integrity of lands and waters and subsequently identifying and prioritizing land for habitat conservation. Application of CAPS requires a statewide mapping effort that is currently under way and has been partially funded. Currently, UMass has developed maps for approximately 50 towns in Western Massachusetts through the CAPS project.

In September 2006, EPA awarded MassDEP's Wetlands Program a new grant that is allowing UMASS to validate mapping for the 50 towns previously mapped, and to produce new maps for 40 additional towns. UMass began work under this grant in January 2007 and at the conclusion of this grant in January 2008, maps will be completed for 90 towns in Western Massachusetts.

When wetland alterations are permitted, MassDEP's current regulations require replication of the altered wetland so that it functions the same as the lost wetland. However, only the size of the wetland is typically replaced and not the functions of the lost wetland. MassDEP intends to map and track replication areas through wetland aerial mapping technology to gain a better understanding of how much area is actually constructed and how successful the replication really is.

The University of Massachusetts Research Bulletin 746/December 1998 entitled Compensatory Wetland Mitigation in Massachusetts notes that the created wetland is often not the same as the impacted wetland type. For example, the study found that while 71% of the impacted wetlands types are forested, only 25% of the created wetlands were designed as forested. None of the created wetlands were ever forested. Furthermore, the UMass study found that 22% of the required replication was never built. The data is supported by aerial photography data that reflects the types of altered wetlands corresponding to those identified in the UMass study. MassDEP and others have invested significant time and effort in the development and siting of the Taunton River Watershed Wetlands Mitigation Bank authorized by the Transportation Bond Bill of 2004 (Section 89 of Massachusetts Acts Chapter 291). The purpose of the bank, in addition to offering mitigation opportunities for projects impacting wetlands, is to determine if mitigation efforts can be improved by establishing large area mitigation banks with significant oversight during the planning, construction and post-construction monitoring phases.

Replication area in Cohasset, MA under construction

Maintaining a strong performance
MassDEP is currently performing the following activities to preserve wetland functions. These activities include:

  • Preventing Unpermitted Fill: MassDEP's emphasis on the prevention of unpermitted fill will not only reduce the acreage of wetlands lost, but will also reduce the associated functions lost.
  • Limit Permitted Alteration through Sequencing: In March 2005, MassDEP strengthened the regulations by proposing clear language requiring applicants to avoid, minimize, and mitigate bordering vegetated wetland impacts. The goal is to reduce wetland impacts in the first place, thus minimizing the amount of wetland that needs replacement, since studies consistently show that wetlands replication has not successfully replaced lost wetlands functions.
  • Increase Emphasis on Replacement of Functions for Permitted Losses: Although MassDEP tries to avoid wetland losses, there are circumstances where some impacts cannot be avoided. MassDEP has worked toward improvements in wetland replacement by issuing the Massachusetts Inland Wetland Replication Guidelines in March 2002. In 2006 the Massachusetts Wildlife Habitat Protection Guidelines for Inland Resource Areas was issued to recognize the importance of the protection of wildlife habitat.
  • Protect the Buffer Zone: Protection of the buffer zone contributes significantly to protection of wetlands, since the adjacent buffer zone provides critical wildlife habitat for certain species, and also helps to filters pollutants - important for water quality in developed areas. Changes to the buffer zone regulations (i.e. simplified review) promulgated in March 2005 were intended to encourage project proponents to stay at least 50 feet away from the wetland boundary, thereby protecting the wetland itself, and many of the functions that it serves, such as wildlife and fisheries habitat.
  • Promulgate Stormwater Regulations: MassDEP's Stormwater Management Policy has been revised and improved and is being incorporated into the Wetland Protection Act Regulations.

Improving Results/Detailed Workplans

  • Restore Wetlands Lost by Unpermitted Fill: Through MassDEP's enforcement efforts and the increasing emphasis on preventing and deterring future fills, MassDEP will require restoration of the lost wetland and its functions. This work can be required directly through enforcement orders, Consent Orders and court actions. MassDEP will also map and track wetland areas that are restored following enforcement actions through wetland aerial mapping technology, gaining a better understanding of how much restoration is actually constructed (versus wetland loss) and how successful restoration areas really are.(Enforcement Action - ongoing; Technology to map restoration areas - October 2008).
  • Work with Conservation Commissions to Reduce Wetland Loss: MassDEP needs to increase the partnership with Conservation Commissions to reduce the loss of wetlands and to find best practices in preserving wetland functions. MassDEP's Wetlands Circuit Rider program has increased the ability to partner with Conservation Commissions significantly. The distribution of local wetland maps and associated wetland loss data to each Commission has enhanced the ability of Conservation Commissions to track wetland loss and conduct enforcement, as needed (ongoing).
  • Wetland Database Integration Effort: MassDEP's GIS capabilities, wetland permitting database, and wetland change mapping database, combined with electronic filings, will allow MassDEP to look at the characteristics of wetland ecosystems from an aerial vantage point. MassDEP will be able examine not only the acreage of the impact, but also the characteristics of the wetlands that are impacted. These tools may also allow MassDEP to work toward examining the cumulative effects of development activity both spatially and over time. The mapping and tracking of replication and restoration areas, as well as the completion of the CAPs mapping will be significant tools in the protection of wetland functions. (October 2008)
  • Improve Success of Replaced Wetlands: On occasions when wetland alteration is approved, requirements for design, construction and monitoring of replacement areas need to be strengthened and enforced. MassDEP will be working to improve replication success after successfully reducing both unpermitted and permitted wetland loss. MassDEP will also map and track wetland replication and restoration areas through the wetland change mapping technology to gain a better understanding of how much replication and restoration is actually constructed (versus wetland loss) and how successful these areas really are. MassDEP is also continuing to work on the Wetland Mitigation Banking workgroup. (ongoing)
  • Promulgate Stormwater Regulations: MassDEP's Stormwater Management Policy has been revised and improved and is being incorporated into the Wetland Protection Act Regulations. It is anticipated that the new regulations will be promulgated in late 2007. (December 2007).
  • Buffer Zone Protection: Changes to the buffer zone regulations (i.e. simplified review) promulgated in March 2005 were intended to encourage project proponents to stay at least 50 feet away from the wetland boundary, thereby protecting the wetland itself, and many of the functions that it serves, such as wildlife and fisheries habitat. The simplified review regulation has had limited use and MassDEP will be evaluating it in 2008 pursuant to the sunset clause to determine if it should be changed or eliminated entirely. (Summer 2008)
  • Encourage Restoration Projects: MassDEP is preparing to publish a Dam Removal Policy. This policy is intended to encourage dam removal projects and highlight the benefits they provide since they are often intended to restore natural riverine systems and the associated aquatic habitat and floodplain systems.(September 2007)

back to Wetlands index

Improve wetlands database integration

Summary:

Indicator: Percent of wetland permitting and enforcement data from wetlands loss maps

Why is this important?
Despite the successes of the wetlands loss mapping initiative, MassDEP still faces several challenges, the integration of current aerial maps and new data with existing permitting and enforcement data. This integration will allow MassDEP to more easily determine whether a loss site is permitted or has a history of enforcement actions. It will also improve MassDEP's ability to determine the cause of the loss and to quickly take corrective action to address the loss. Prompt action is more likely to result in successful wetland restoration where wetlands were illegally filled, or successful wetland replication when constructed areas fail or are never built. An overall reduction in wetland loss by deterring illegal filling, encouraging review of permitted activities, and developing more effective compliance strategies can be accomplished by improving the current wetlands loss data.

Visual Integration of Wetland Permit and Wetland Loss Data

How are we doing?
In 2005, MassDEP received a three-year Wetland Demonstration Program grant from EPA. The money from this grant will allow MassDEP to move forward on several projects that will improve overall tracking of the state's wetlands. The majority of the money from this grant will go to developing the visual integration of the wetlands permitting databases and wetlands loss data. By combining these two components into one application, MassDEP will be able to identify which wetlands losses are permitted and which are illegal, how much and what type of loss occurred, and which sites have had enforcement actions or investigations.

MassDEP will also develop an application that will identify and track wetlands replication areas associated with permitted projects, restoration associated with enforcement actions, and other restoration projects to track wetlands gained. There are many sources of data that will be required to make this application a success. A Data Needs Assessment (DNA) was completed in 2006 and in 2007, a consultant was hired to develop the application, the Wetlands Information Redesign (WIRE). This project is scheduled for completion in 2008.

Workplan:

What's behind the numbers: Wetland loss is permitted through local Orders of Conditions (OOC's), Superseding Orders of Conditions (SOC's) and Variances. Unfortunately, wetland loss occurs illegally more frequently than it occurs with a valid permit. MassDEP's understanding of the causes of wetland loss as described in the previous workplans is based on extensive file reviews in 92 Towns. While yielding valuable information, this is not the most efficient way to evaluate the causes of wetland loss identified through the mapping or to determine the appropriate action to take. The effort is also very resource intensive.

As a result, MassDEP is undertaking an ambitious project to integrate multiple data sources to provide up-to-date permitting data that is visually displayed on wetland loss maps. MassDEP has four major data sources:

  • MassDEP's WETINFO database tracks basic permitting information on Notices of Intent (NOI) that have been filed, Orders of Conditions (OOC) issued, and Superseding Orders of Conditions (SOC) issued. With about 8,500 filings under the Wetland Protection Act per year and limited resources, MassDEP's ability to maintain complete and accurate data on permitted projects is limited The database also has been scheduled to be redesigned to provide flexibility and increased functionality.
  • MassDEP has developed electronic filing forms (eDEP) to assist in the capture and management of the large volumes of permitting data received each year. Usage of the electronic filing forms is very limited, however, at the current time. MassDEP is actively working to increase the percentage of applications filed electronically through a combination of application improvements, incentives, and requirements.
  • To improve efficiency and data tracking of enforcement actions, MassDEP is currently improving its Compliance and Enforcement (C&E) electronic database to make data management and document issuance easier and more efficient.
  • Aerial wetland loss maps utilize image processing and Geographic Information System (GIS) to overlay old aerial photographs with new photographs to identify areas where wetlands have changed.

Further development and integration of a mapping tool will be needed to collect and display integrated geospatial information from these multiple data sources.

Maintaining a strong performance
Using state of the art wetland loss maps combined with data from town wetland file reviews, MassDEP has better understanding of where wetland loss is permitted or illegal and the causes of the wetlands loss. However, to maintain this level of understanding, MassDEP needs automate the compilation of collected data. MassDEP is currently working toward updating many of the crucial information systems pertaining to permitting and enforcement that are needed to effectively manage the program. To significantly improve these parallel data sources, MassDEP applied for and received a three-year grant from EPA that will enable better management of data and as a result, more accurately identify the areas where improvement is needed in the current regulatory program, the success of proposed mitigation areas, and enforcement action results. Furthermore, the integration of MassDEP's data sources will identify appropriate follow-up actions- whether compliance follow-up or enforcement, in a manner that is timely and much more likely to be successful.

Detailed Workplan
The deliverables anticipated from this project include the following:

  • Conduct a Data Needs Assessment: A Request for Quotes (RFQ) was posted and an IT consultant was selected to conduct a Data Needs Assessment (DNA). The DNA was completed in September 2006. The DNA included interviews with MassDEP staff, Conservation Commissions and consultants; written surveys of Conservation Commissions and consultants. The final report is available upon request. (September 2006)
  • Implementation of Recommendations: Following review and consideration of the DNA final report, MassDEP issued an RFQ for the implementation phase of the grant. A consultant was hired and is currently working to meet an ambitious schedule to complete the project in the Fall of 2008.
  • The goals of the grant are to provide simultaneous access to wetlands change mapping and associated data from permitting, compliance, enforcement, and mitigation activities at a particular geographic location through an enhanced information application. Wetlands staff will be given the capability to track activities through their current workflow and have access to historical information on activities related to applicants and wetlands resources. Having better and more timely information, including geospatial data, will allow for improved strategic decision making for users in regards to wetlands permitting, compliance, and enforcement activities. (October 2008)
  • At the conclusion of this grant, MassDEP expects to complete the first phase of this project to link existing Wetinfo permitting (and possibly limited enforcement) data to wetland loss and other GIS maps. Also anticipated is that significant progress made in the overall redesign of Wetinfo. Significant information technology application updates are planned throughout MassDEP, including enhancements to compliance & enforcement tracking applications. The compliance & enforcement tracking application will be integrated with all of the wetlands applications that are scheduled to be developed/enhanced. This additional integration with the compliance and enforcement database is expected to take several years and will not be completed by October 2008. Once complete, the new integrated data system will be referred to as the Wetland Information Resource (WIRE). (October 2008)

Key Features of New Wetland Information Redesign (WIRE):

  • Mapping Tool: A mapping tool is being developed to collect and display integrated geospatial information. Careful attention was paid to this need during the needs analysis.
  • Data Collection: Electronic data collection must be increased to improve the amount and quality of data collection and to support a goal of no net increase of time spent on data entry by wetlands analysts. This requires enhancement of eDEP and improved integration of eDEP with the new integrated data system.

Wetinfo Integration: Wetlands information (obtained through the primary wetlands database, WETINFO) will be linked to Wetlands Change Maps

  • Development of Mitigation Tracking: A system is being developed for using the wetland loss maps to track permitted wetland replication areas, restoration projects required by enforcement actions, and voluntary replication or restoration projects. An important feature of this project is to track replication and restoration using the wetland loss (in this case gain) mapping system.

Project success will be measured by improved workflow and dataflow of the Wetlands Protection Program, ease of use of tools for staff, quality assurance/control of data, and seamless integration of all applications involved in this project. Semi-annual status report and annual progress report will be produced for this project element. MassDEP intends to have the Wire Integration Project completed by the Fall, 2008.

back to Wetlands index