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What is a wetland delineation and why do I need one?

Prior to settlement, Iowa was once home to 4-6 million acres of wetlands. Today, approximately 95% of Iowa’s wetlands have been drained to make way for farming or other development.  Wetlands are an important part of our ecosystem both from a water quality and a biodiversity perspective; because of this, wetlands are protected under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act; the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers defines a wetland as an area that is inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support and that under normal circumstances do support a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. (WETLAND DELINEATION: PAST AND CURRENT PRACTICE.” National Research Council. 1995. Wetlands: Characteristics and Boundaries. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency responsible for evaluating impacts on fish and wildlife including projects subject to the requirements of Section 404, looks for three attributes when defining a wetland:

1) at least periodically, the land supports predominantly hydrophytes, a plant which grows only in or on water;

2) the substrate, an underlying substance or layer is predominantly undrained hydric soil; and

3) the substrate is non-soil and is saturated with water or covered by shallow water at some time during the growing season of each year.

Basically, wetlands are areas of land that able to support specific types of vegetation and animal life due to the soil type and presence of water within or on the soil for an extended period of time.

How do I know if I have a wetland?
Generally, any area that is wet for an extended period during the year could be a wetland. However, in many cases wetlands are not that easy to spot and should be surveyed and delineated by a professional utilizing the approved wetland delineation methodology.

Evora Consulting follows the methodology described in the 1987 Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual in association with the applicable regional supplement to complete a wetland delineation. More specifically, it entails the analysis of vegetation, hydrology, and soils of the project area to determine the presence or absence of a wetland area.

How is protecting wetlands beneficial to me?
There are many ways that wetlands are beneficial to us that we do not even realize!

  • Wetlands improve water quality through being a natural filter for nutrients and pollutants. For example, research has shown that approximately 1-acre of Iowa wetland could remove excess nitrogen runoff from 100 acres of corn ground.
  • Wetlands control flooding by absorbing and storing access water and as a result can protect nearby communities and/or buildings.
  • Wetlands assist in recharging groundwater through aquifers – which is where many of us get our drinking water!
  • Wetlands can provide beautiful open spaces for recreation, outdoor activities, and wildlife viewing.
  • Wetlands provide and are essential for many important species that are or become a food source. Also, they are important in protecting biodiversity.

But, I own this land!
When we take a closer look at wetlands and permitting requirements, one important distinguishing term to understand is public waters. “Public Waters” are defined as those waters which are not only used by and enjoyed by one individual, but also by neighbors, friends, communities, etc., or the public in general.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, person’s planning any sort or work involving discharge of dredged or fill material into “Waters of the United States” or “Public Waters” are requested to submit a request for a Section 404 permit. In laymen’s terms, if your project is being planned within a piece of property that has waters potentially connected to neighbors, other communities, etc. they are considered public waters and should be permitted.

When should I have a wetland delineation completed prior to starting my project?
As soon as possible! Because a large part of the wetland delineation process is looking at vegetation, wetland delineations are best done during the growing season. In Iowa, this generally means from May 15 – September 15. After the initial field work is completed a report is submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers where the official determination is made. This could take months; therefore, we recommend completing a wetland delineation in the early phases of your project planning.

How long is my delineation good for?
Once approved, a wetland delineation determination is good for 5-years. If your project is planned to begin after that timeframe, we recommend waiting until closer to the initiation of the project.

What happens if a wetland is found?
Part of the wetland delineation process is submitting a report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; if a wetland is found, they will determine whether or not the wetland area is jurisdictional and in need of protection or not jurisdictional and able to be constructed.

If a jurisdictional wetland is found within your project area, Evora Consulting can assist and point you in the right direction for the next steps of the permitting process. Connect with our Ecological Specialist, Jamie Lane at jlane@evora-group.com or by calling our main office at 515-256-8814.