When developing property in Ohio, it is the responsibility of the project owner to account for permit and compliance regulations associated to their project. All too often during development projects, sensitive ecological features such as wetlands fall victim to impacts and disturbances causing diminished function, not to mention heavy fines for the owner. Planning for a development project should include a wide array of due diligence, one being a site survey and delineation of potential waters of the state, or in this article's case, wetlands. Wetlands are by far the most common critical ecological areas that are found on proposed residential or commercial development sites. This article will briefly outline the responsibilities of protecting your wetlands and the preliminary steps in permitting.
What is a Wetland?
So what is a wetland? In Ohio, wetlands are areas of land where water covers the soil all year, or just at certain times of the year. One of the common misconceptions is that all wetlands must have some type of free standing water (inundation) in order for them to be classified as a “wetland.” In fact, wetlands do not always have visible water, and as a result may seem rather dry. Wetlands are identified by examining three categorical criteria that has been set by the US Army Corps of Engineers in order to accurately identify wetland areas prior to development. These categories can be seen below.
- Hydrology: When it comes to wetlands, hydrology directly dictates how a wetland is formed, how large it is, and the specific function that a wetland plays. Wetlands and uplands in their natural environments continually receive or lose water through exchange with the atmosphere, streams, and ground water. As a result of construction, wetlands are extremely susceptible to receiving increased amounts of surface water runoff (storm water) into the system causing drastic and detrimental changes to how the wetland will function.
- Soils: The presences of hydric soils are indicative to wetlands. Hydric soils are typically defined as being a soil that in its un-drained condition, is saturated, flooded, or ponded long enough during the growing season to develop an anaerobic condition that supports the growth and regeneration of vegetation (hydrophytic).
- Vegetation: In general, hydrophytic vegetation is plant-life that thrives in wet conditions. When it comes to evaluating the area’s vegetation, the emphasis is placed on the total assembly of dominant plant species rather than on the presence of a particular indicator species.
So now that we have a general understanding of wetlands, how does this relate to storm water permitting and development? In the state of Ohio, construction activities disturbing one or more acres of land needs to file for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. With this permit, a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) will need to be prepared in order to meet the standards and be compliant with the permit. In the requirements section of the current permit (OHC000004) all surface waters (springs, wetlands, streams, lakes, water wells, etc.) including the boundaries of these wetlands or stream features needs to be included in a project’s SWPPP.
The next step when planning a project for these types of areas is determining whether or not they will be impacted by construction activities. When a site does not propose any wetland impacts, and wetlands are indeed present, then the proper protection needs to be implemented before construction begins. The current Ohio Construction Storm Water General Permit requires that all perimeter sediment controls be installed prior to grading and within seven days of first grubbing, and should include not only the limits of disturbance, but sensitive wetland or stream areas as well. There are many ways in which you can properly protect the wetlands on your site. The use of and the installation of the appropriate perimeter controls (i.e. silt fence, or compost filter sock) is recommended to separate the upland site conditions of the project from the wetland areas. (see photo)
When installing your perimeter controls you should reference the current version of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Rainwater and Land Development Manual (RLDM) for the proper methods pertaining to the practice you chose. In most cases the perimeter controls are to be installed on the upland side of the delineated wetland boundary with an established un-disturbed vegetated buffer for maximum protection of the wetland system.
In a majority of today’s development projects, construction-related impacts to wetlands are required to be permitted through the Army Corps of Engineers, as complete avoidance is rarely compatible with development plans. This always needs to be completed prior to the start of construction. Once permitting is completed and approved, the impact to wetland areas should be one of the first construction activities to occur at the site. Once the wetland impact phase of construction is completed, perimeter controls such as compost filter socks should be used to separate wetland areas from future phases. After the perimeter controls have been successfully installed, the final phase should include the proper installation of seed and mulch, extending fifty feet from the delineated boundary to promote the re-establishment of a vegetated buffer.
The methods listed in this article are the most basic aspects of understanding and protecting the wetland systems on your project. As a development owner, you and your contractors should be knowledgeable of current policies and regulations that are enforced in these types of areas. For further information you can access the Ohio EPA Storm Water webpage, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and other literature provided by consultants and conservation agencies such as the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District.
Please feel free to contact our office with any wetland related questions.