Officials: Planned Federal Rollback Would Not Affect Most New England Wetlands

Dec 14, 2018

Wetlands in Rye's Little Harbor.
Credit Sean Linehan / NOAA

Most wetlands permits issued in New England would not be affected by a proposed change in federal environmental rules.

The Trump administration wants to narrow which wetlands receive federal protection under the Clean Water Act to only those that directly feed navigable waters.

Wetlands in the broadest sense make up at least 5 to 10 percent of New Hampshire's land area, according to a 2007 federal study. They include everything from coastal salt marshes and tidal rivers, to seasonal streams, vernal pools and forested swamps.

“All you need is a little bit of closeness to water and for the topography to be able for the water to sort of collect someplace,” says UNH coastal scientist Kalle Matso.

(Click here to explore New Hampshire's wetlands on the federal Fish & Wildlife Service's mapping tool.)

In many states, development in wetlands – including paving, construction, dredging or other modifications – could require separately issued state and federal permits.

But states can ask the federal government to delegate that permitting to them directly. All New England states now have that authority.

Each state has a “general permit” issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, which generally grants them federal pre-approval to oversee permitting for any wetlands project that has "minimal impacts" or affects fewer than 3 acres.

Projects that affect more than 3 acres or have other special impacts account for fewer than 5 to 10 percent of all New England wetlands permits, according to the Army Corps and New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, or DES.

In New Hampshire, the general permit is especially streamlined: Developers only ever have to apply to the state for a wetlands permit, and the Army Corps can monitor the process and decide when to intervene.  

An image taken from a federal mapping tool shows wetlands - freshwater denoted in shades of green, and lake or riverine denoted in shades of blue - in the Concord area.
Credit FWS Wetlands Mapper

New Hampshire officials also say most wetlands here could not be considered “federal waters” under any definition. So instead, only state permits are required to disturb them.

Those state permits use a separate, more stringent definition of wetlands than the Trump administration has proposed, according to DES.

Officials at DES have been separately working for years on streamlining their wetlands permitting system – aiming to offer faster, simpler access to permits for more kinds of low-impact projects.

The overhaul would not change the basic definitions of protected wetlands. The public can comment on the proposed changes through Jan. 18.

The federal rule change is also set to go out for public comment soon.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu wrote a letter to then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt in 2017, supporting the rollback. 

In its current form, it could remove Clean Water Act protections from at least 18 percent of the nation’s streams and 51 percent of its wetlands, according to records obtained by the publication E&E News.

Broadly, UNH’s Matso says all rules protecting wetlands provide a collective benefit.

Wetlands absorb floodwaters and filter pollution, preventing expensive cleanups and saving taxpayer money, he says – and they store the carbon emissions that drive global warming.

"And so the more that we can preserve these, the better we will be,” Matso says.

He adds that New England will also see new wetlands, as climate change brings more precipitation. It could put sensitive ecosystems nearer to human development.

This story has been updated.