Project assessment is the process of investigating what natural resources, such as wetlands or streams, exist on your property and what kinds of protection are required by law. It’s important to understand what resources on your property might be subject to regulation so you can incorporate avoidance and minimization into your project design. It will also help you understand what must be compensated for if wetland impacts are unavoidable.
An individual project assessment begins by looking at the overall landscape setting, drainage basin, and existing natural and human-made features. Research should include databases for priority habitats (PHS maps), wetland inventory maps, fish use maps (Salmonscape), local critical areas maps, aerial maps, LIDAR, etc.
Have your site assessed for regulated resources
Following a complete examination of the available databases and mapping tools, the site must be thoroughly assessed for any and all regulated resources. Many sites contain unmapped streams or wetlands. Some may have threatened or endangered plants or animals that are not shown on any resource maps.
While mapping resources and previous studies provide important background information, they typically need to be supplemented with current site-specific information for permitting. Site-specific studies, such as wetland delineation and rating, are necessary to accurately characterize the resources on a site.
Avoidance is the first step in the mitigation sequence and means designing your project to avoid impacting wetlands during and after construction. For most types of impacts, wetland laws require applicants to demonstrate there is no practicable alternative to reasonably accomplish the project's purpose without the impact. Therefore, the impact is unavoidable.
Avoidance of impacts means that there is no direct loss of wetland area or function. It should be one of the first considerations in project design. Too often, project designers move quickly past the avoidance step and begin looking for ways to compensate for impacts that could be reasonably avoided.
At each level of review, local, state, and federal agencies have the authority to require feasibility studies, analysis of practicable alternatives, modifications to designs, and denial of a project if it is determined that a project does not demonstrate compliance with the mitigation sequence.
When a site has multiple wetlands, prioritize avoiding impacts to higher-quality wetlands. If fill is unavoidable, it may make more ecological sense to fill a lower-quality Category III or IV wetland than a higher-quality Category I or II wetland. This will also reduce mitigation requirements, saving time and money in project development. There are occasionally instances where wetland impacts are preferable, such as impacting a small Category IV wetland instead of a large, mature upland forest.
There are many steps in the design process that can incorporate wetland impact avoidance. Permit applicants are required to document that all efforts have been made to avoid impacts.
Minimization, the second step in the mitigation sequence, means reducing the amount of wetland impacts as much as possible when impacts are unavoidable. It might also mean impacting a wetland of lower quality instead of a higher-quality wetland.
After the project designer has completed the avoidance analysis and it is believed there is no reasonable, practicable alternative to accomplish the proposed action, applicants are still required to minimize wetland impacts.
Minimization reduces the degree to which wetland impacts affect an area, ecological functions, or both. You can incorporate actions to minimize impacts into many steps of the design process. Most avoidance techniques can also be used to minimize impacts. Just as with avoidance, you're required to document the steps taken to minimize impacts.
Using Low Impact Development (LID) also can lessen impacts to wetlands. This stormwater and land-use strategy tries to mimic the natural processes on pre-developed (typically forested) land that allows rainfall to soak into the ground or get used by plants instead of becoming runoff. LID emphasizes integrating conservation, use of on-site landscape features, site planning, and distributed stormwater management practices into a project design.
For example, reducing the amount of plants and soil disturbed during site development helps rainfall absorb into the ground instead of running directly into a gutter. Carefully applied LID techniques can help minimize impacts to wetlands.