Wetland losses mount

Trenton Times, Friday, April 12, 2002


TRENTON - In an unusually harsh appraisal, New Jersey environmental Commissioner Bradley Campbell yesterday called state measures designed to stem the loss of protected wetlands a ``dismal'' failure.

Rather than creating two acres of wetlands for every acre lost to development, as New Jersey's strict regulations require, a far smaller amount of wetlands is actually restored properly, Campbell said, citing a DEP study of the state's wetlands mitigation program released yesterday.

Indeed, less than half of the wetlands that developers were required to create to replace the ones they built over in the construction of roads and buildings actually reached the size proposed or function properly, the study found. Efforts to recreate forested wetlands fell farthest from the mark, with a success rate of just 1 percent.

At 16 of the 90 freshwater wetlands sites studied, no wetlands were created at all.

The study's bleak results stand in marked contrast to the state's ambitious standards, which are stricter even than federal regulations.

``Despite a stated goal of achieving a net gain, we're actually in a posture, it appears, where we are sustaining a 22 percent loss,'' Campbell said, adding that he would redouble efforts to prevent wetlands from being filled in the first place.

``Mitigation is always a last resort,'' he said.

Campbell said the state would step up its oversight of mitigation projects, require developers to take out bonds to ensure there are funds to complete them and prove that the wetlands they create actually function properly, among other measures.

According to current practices, environmental consultants sign off on a project's design but do not inspect the site once it is completed.

Campbell said the names of developers, both public and private, were left out of the report since the DEP plans to review each of the cases ``to see if enforcement is needed.'' The agency does not yet have enough information to determine why projects failed.

``In some cases, (the developer) may not be aware of the failure,'' he said.

Campbell put much of the blame for the program's failure on what he called shoddy oversight by the previous administration, saying, ``The will to protect seems to have eroded.''

Once viewed as breeding grounds for disease, wetlands are now prized as filters for natural and man-made pollutants, absorbing water during floods and providing a habitat for plants and animals.

Under New Jersey rules, developers are allowed to replace the wetlands they fill by restoring former wetlands, creating new ones, contributing funds to state-monitored sites called ``mitigation banks'' and agreeing to preserve land as open space.

The study's authors sited poor hydrological conditions at many of the sites, particularly at the ones that relied most heavily on stormwater runoff.

``It's hit-or-miss,'' said Ernest Hahn, an assistant DEP commissioner, who added that the agency would urge developers to restore sites with natural hydrology, such as former farm fields established in wetlands.

Environmental advocates say the amount of wetlands lost each year is larger than what is accounted for in development permits because it is difficult to tabulate the wetlands lost in small development projects that fall below the regulators' radar screen.

According to state estimates, New Jersey lost nearly 40 percent of its wetlands between the 1870s and 1970s. More recently, viewing aerial photographs, DEP researchers determined that the state lost nearly 16,000 acres of wetlands between 1986 and 1995.

Yesterday's report was one of many in recent days outlining the difficulties in recreating wetlands.

A National Academy of Sciences study last year, for example, warned that some wetlands, including bogs and fens, cannot be restored and should not be filled.

``This study demonstrates what we already know by instinct - that nature locates wetlands where they ought to be and that covering them over with concrete and thinking you can recreate them elsewhere is a flawed concept,'' said George Hawkins, director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

Environmentalists say that sites created by private developers are not the only ones to fail. Jeffrey Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said restored wetlands along some of New Jersey's highways fared particularly poorly.

``There is a site in Mahwah that took stormwater from Route 287 and it ended up silting in with gravel and soda bottles,'' he said.

A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1990s found as many as 40 percent of mitigation sites did not meet the specifications of their own plans or permits.

Eric Schrading, a senior biologist with the federal agency, said the state had responded to the report by putting more emphasis on mitigation banking - soliciting contributions from developers for larger, state-selected and monitored sites rather than having them perform their own restorations.

He said the state had collected a lot of money, ``but they haven't spent much of it.'' None of those sites was included in the DEP study.

Patrick O'Keefe, president of the New Jersey Builders Association, said he will urge the DEP to establish more of the banks, however, noting that ``oversight by the DEP is much greater and they can prioritize where they want the mitigation to occur.''

In 1999, when the study began, the state had approved 171 freshwater wetlands mitigation sites, ranging in size from .08 acres to 41.20 acres. As proposed, the 90 sites studied included a total of 326 acres.

The researchers did not examine tidal wetlands restorations in the study, although those projects are some of the largest in the state. Public Service Electric & Gas, the state's largest electric utility, is restoring more than 2,000 acres of wetlands near the Salem nuclear plant, for example.

Tidal wetlands account for just over 20 percent of the state's wetlands acres.