Making a place for small restorations in the wetland regulations
Over the years I have occasionally run into permitting/regulatory systems that seem to work against the restoration of ecosystems. The attempt to shoehorn efforts to restore ecosystems into a system designed to regulate/allow damage to ecosystems by development creates a rather jarring misfit. It is my premise, based on my experiences and the discussions I have had with others on these topics, that it is possible to separate out restoration efforts from the adversarial permitting process, with the proviso that scale counts and what I recommend only suits small scale projects.
My original experience was when Friends of the Moshassuck started planting trees on an an abandoned unbuildable lot covered with Japanese Knotweed along the Moshassuck River in Providence. The original owner said, you can plant there, but do not publicize or attract too much attention. Current ownership said we do not talk to you, which is interpreted as do your thing but we know nothing for insurance purposes. We planted trees for 18 years and stopped when we ran out of room on the 1 acre site. The biggest /oldest trees are now 35 feet tall, creating a closed canopy forest and shading out the Knotweed. We ended up planting about 6 trees a year and planted about 90 of them. Living trees are mapped on the Friends of the Moshassuck website at http://themoshassuck.org/trees_table/
At the time I had little idea of the way the rules worked, we just decided to plant trees to suppress knotweed down by the river. Supposedly I would have needed a permit to plant the trees, and I know now that I would not even have been allowed to apply for a permit because we were squatters. But with the squat never coming up I convinced the Director of DEM that we should get a waiver because all we were doing was an ecological restoration. The important follow up was a change in regulations so that tree planting in areas like that riverine forest we created is now allowed by rule. No permit required.
A second example might be the development of compost regulations in the last 7 years. When i started the Compost Initiative for ECRI and SCLT a person could compost their own food scrap at home, but had to apply for a permit equivalent to that the RIRRC facility in Johnston required to compost their next door neighbor’s food scrap.
What we came up with was a three tiered system: Community garden sized and smaller, (20 Cubic yards of compostables on site) just register and if you do not offend your neighbors or pollute the water, you are good to go. Up to 600 cubic yards a year, a limited application you can fill out yourself, that demonstrates a level of understanding of the site and your expertise. Bigger, professionally engineered and documented.
This provides a useful framework.
My current project, the preservation of habitat for breeding toads in a feral wetland goes right to the heart of the wetland regulations and how they have been bent to the expectations and business practices of the developers. There is a constant tension between regulators and developers and the amount of money involved means that politicians are also involved. What we have ended up with is a regulatory apparatus that functions by rote. Things are prepared this way and must say x, y, and z. And we approve another tiny cut to the environment in the pursuit of profit.
The folks this really does not work for are small local non profits seeking to assist a natural world in retreat. Creating a footpath in a wet area, or restoring a small semi natural wetland that is silting in and losing its ability to hold water long enough for a breeding cycle should not be expensive or require an complicated application process.
So how do you decide that a wetland needs deepening so it will hold water longer. This is part of the natural cycle of wetlands, and in a forest no one would think twice about needing to restore a naturally evolving wetland, as there is another wetland in a different stage of evolution just over the hill. But in a long filled in feral wetland that was once a pond with a bridge and a fountain, and is now silting in from the dirt road up the hill in obvious fashion, complete with deltas of sediment, measurable elevation changes across the pond, and rapid shifts in the distribution of vegetation that are documented on videos over the last several years, you can figure out it is time to take action to preserve the only breeding population of Fowler’s toads in the City of Providence.
Since the land is part of a public cemetery I partnered with the Parks Department of the City of Providence. They have been an excellent partner. It was suggested to me that the project I had in mind really ought to be considered routine maintenance, and I totally agree. But it was also my goal to open up some space for others seeking to do similar or equivalent restorations in their watersheds by making the process of restoration work for small non profits easier. So I sought help from the RIDEM Wetland Restoration Team at the suggestion of DEM members of the Green Infrastructure Coalition.
I prepared an extensive portfolio for the team members seeking to demonstrate a knowledge of the site, the ecological context, the behavior of the toads, so that they could help me refine my project. But instead of working to refine the project, they jumped into regulatory mode and said go apply for a permit. I talked to several engineering firms and none of them could figure out what to do, and definitely could not help us based on the budget FOTM had for the project.
Therefore, I filled out the paperwork, collected the signatures of City officials, prepared vegetation lists and maps, created very large scale drawings of the restorations suggested on blown up versions of the city plat maps so that work on such a small scale (15’ x25’) could be easily seen, provided pictures galore and handed it in.
I was then told the27 8×10 color glossies with the circles and arrows and a description on the backmeant nothing and that only drawings with very specific features created by specialists with specialized software were acceptable and that it did not matter how well you demonstrated the need and efficacy of the project, or an understanding of ecosystem function well beyond what is normally presented, the paperwork has to look like this and be done this way.
At a super discount, and because I had essentially done all the work that merely had to be copied onto the right format, a member of the Green Infrastructure Coalition did the work for $1000.
Eventually permit in hand, volunteers and hand labor did the entire project in which the only cost was $236 for a pond liner.
Video available here
This is one of the Rainwater pool series videos that cover each of the months of the last two years and fully explain the project.
I will also say that the project will continue to be monitored and evaluated over the next couple of years to see how well it works and modified if necessary. I expect the next time the pool goes dry I will be out there with a shovel fixing something.
The larger context
When i talk to folks in the land protection business, there is an occasional voicing of concerns around the over regulation of building footpaths with volunteers in wetter areas. The point of the footpaths on wet spots on conservation land is to prevent damage to wet areas while allowing access to natural treasures. And again it is the need for full blown engineering studies and diagrams rather than a common sense on the ground approach that frustrates and delays small restoration organizations in ways that seem unnecessary.
I was told a story recently about DOT. There are times when a very small action could seriously reduce water damage but the budget does not allow both the detailed planning and the work that would take little time and expense that an experienced crew could just do.
After I wrote the nearly finished draft of this I had a conversation with a leader of a non profit who said that several years ago DEM did almost exactly what I try to describe3 below, DEM assigned folks to help make it all happen including design and the cost was zero. But he thinks that grant ran out.
Clearly we need something to help the restorers
It is my opinion that a process just for restorations needs to be established. It can be divided up sort of like the compost process. Below a certain level of size or cost and complexity hand drawn and pictures and photos and videos along with a narrative and one official map (a city plat map or USGS topo providing exact location should be sufficient) (This is more than required for a community garden to compost neighborhood food scrap, but we do need a greater level of knowledge and expertise to make a wetland decision) Once the location is established on one map, there seems no reason that large scale pictures of the site could not stand in for many of the drawings required. Descriptions on the pictures or a video with discussion for dynamic features should be sufficient to tell whether a project makes sense and works as well a set of engineered drawings. Maybe a guideline could be that if the cost of restoration is less than $1000 and the size is less than 1/8 of an acre hand drawn maps and large scale pictures or videos could substitute for some of the drawings.
I also think the stormwater regulations might need some adjustment as well as the regulations call for infiltrating stormwater as fast as is practical in every case, while there are certain situations, The North Burial Ground being the most obvious example, when stormwater is already pooling on the surface in ways that allow it to be used for breeding cycles of amphibians, or has the potential to be used by amphibians with very minor modifications. Considering the state of amphibians in the world, and in RI, the stormwater and wetland regulations should take into account the opportunities to restore and create amphibian habitat, and encourage this in appropriate places. I am not enough of an expert to tell you what the criteria for this might be, but I believe a set of criteria could be developed if this idea was included in the exploration of the rules as we go forward.
Create a separate process for small scale hand powered restorations separate from the regulatory apparatus at least in some way
Possibly scale it based on purpose and size. With non profit or conservation land status, clear restoration goals, a very small budget , and hand tools the criteria for the new system. I would suggest, only partly tongue in cheek, that if it costs more to design the project than carry it out, the regulatory constraints on how design is done are probably inappropriate for the scale.
Use the wetland restoration team to advise and if necessary refer to permitting. But first have them think about restoring and what would be the right way to restore function to the wetland or create better amphibian habitat. Require a presentation to the WRT including pictures, maps, narration, story telling. The job of the WRT should be to evaluate whether the project will do what it says it will and if close tell you what to do to make it work better. Use their expertise to help not just to regulate. I know it would have helped me if they had been willing to suggest improvements rather than just say go get a permit. But I also assume there will be ways to direct projects back to regulatory processes when the scale or understanding of the ecosystem are wrong.
Greg Gerritt Watersheds Steward Friends of the Moshassuck 4/19/18