Summit wetlands policy only partially successful
SUMMIT COUNTY – Impacts to local wetlands have been reduced, but not eliminated, since Summit County and local towns adopted a no-net-loss policy in 1999. Those continued incremental losses could add up to result in significant long-term environmental degradation, warned Tony Curtis, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Frisco regulatory office.Wetlands are critically important components of the ecosystem, providing important wildlife habitat, contributing to water quality and attenuating flows in local drainages.The county and local towns enthusiastically adopted the “conceptual” no-net loss policy after an outpouring of public support and interest, but local officials have not followed up with implementing all the needed measures to make the program a reality. Once grant funding from the EPA ran out, the wetlands program, including adoption of additional countywide wetlands rules, “fell through the cracks,” county planners said.Since Jan. 1, 2000, the Corps has permitted fill in 10.564 acres of waters of the United States, Curtis said. Between 1990 and 2000, the agency permitted fill in 55.123 acres. The Corps routinely requires mitigation at a ratio of greater than one to one. But scientific studies show that such compensatory mitigation is far from successful. “The real question is this: Have permittees fulfilled the White House (and Summit County) policy of net loss when assessing the functional values of the wetland impacted?” Curtis asked. “There is presently no functional assessment model in use in Summit County. So, how do we know that the created wetland is equally successful or functioning on the same level as the natural wetland? As several recent studies have shown, creating or building a wetland does not sufficiently off-set the loss in ecological value of the impacted, filled wetland,” Curtis said.Senior county officials have said they believe the no-net-loss policy is generally working.”There may be some (impacts) here and there, but I would be surprised if there’s been a net loss,” said Steve Hill, a senior special projects planner for the county. Hill said adoption of the policy has led to a situation that discourages developers from proposing projects with significant wetland impacts to begin with.
County Commissioner Bill Wallace was also sanguine about the no-net-loss policy. Wallace said he feels fairly certain that the policy has stemmed the loss of wetlands in the county.”I think our wetland regulations are being complied with,” said county planning director Jim Curnutte, adding that there could even be a theoretical net gain in wetlands based on required setbacks and mitigation measures.But at the staff level, planners said it’s not possible to know how effective the no-net-loss policy has been because they have no accurate way of tracking wetlands impacts or knowing how successful mitigation efforts have been.Headwaters at riskThe areas of most concern in Summit County continue to be in the high elevation wetlands around the headwaters of local streams, including the Blue River between Breckenridge and Hoosier Pass, where the development of platted single-family lots continues to impact important wetlands. Properties platted for development prior to adoption of the county’s wetland regulations were exempted from compliance.Another headwaters area of concern is in the Snake River Basin, especially the North Fork below Loveland Pass, where highway traction sand and runoff from the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area parking lot are resulting in unquantified wetlands impacts.
Long-term cumulative impacts in those areas could make it more difficult to capture and store all-important spring runoff downstream. Wetland impacts in the Upper Blue River headwaters could eventually have a negative effect on flows in the Blue River, especially during a drought, Curtis said. In the bigger ecological picture, headwaters wetlands are irreplaceable and impacts in those areas are difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate, Curtis said.’Out of sight, out of mind'”The big question is, how many wetlands are destroyed each year,” said long-range planner John Roberts, questioning the level of commitment to the policy. “No-net-loss is out of sight, out of mind. It’s just lip service right now,” Roberts said, explaining that the county dropped the ball when it came to following up with the measures needed to implement the policy fully.What’s needed is the political will and blessing from the county commissioners to move ahead with additional phases of wetlands protection, Roberts said. Resistance from the development industry has been a factor, as has been the political shift at the national level, Roberts suggested. Under the Bush administration, federal regulatory agencies have backed away from enforcement of wetlands protection, removing some of the pressure that existed during the late 1990s.Curnutte acknowledged that additional wetlands measures have been part of the county’s long-range plan for several years, but that they haven’t been a high priority, based on guidance from the county commissioners.
A series of three county planning memos dating back to 2002 clearly show the remaining steps needed to more fully implement a solid wetlands protection program, including adoption of specific strategies for individual planning basins. On the federal side of the equation, the Corps is considering changes to its long-term mitigation and monitoring policies, Curtis said.”Forested wetlands may need 30 years of monitoring to see if trees are replaced successfully, Curtis said, singling out just one example of how the agency could beef up its enforcement of the national no-net-loss policy, adopted under an executive order by former president George Bush.Curtis suggested that Summit County could use its transfer of development rights program to help with wetlands protection by removing some of the development potential from critical headwaters areas.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.
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