Virginia state ecologists constantly have to balance land development and wetland health in their permitting processes. A new web tool being built by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality should give wetlands staying power by giving developers knowledge that will ease their building permit process.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is entrusted with finding a balance between development and preserving the ecological integrity of wetlands, which is linked with water quality standards at the federal and state levels, said Michelle Henicheck, a senior wetland ecologist for the DEQ.
The new geographic information system data map, known as the Wetland Condition Assessment Tool or WetCAT, will give easily accessible, location-based wetland data to governments, permit writers and citizens. The goal is to empower conservation and wise governmental decision making.
VIMS took a three stage approach to compiling data on wetlands for the new WetCAT system, said Henicheck.
First, VIMS scientists used a slew of geographic data to account for all wetlands in the state. “It took about a year, at least, of four computers running 24/7 to crunch the data,” said Kirk Havens, assistant director of the VIMS Center for Coastal Research.
Then, they rapidly analyzed the wetlands based on land stressors like parking lots, ditches, rows of crops or clear-cut fields. Once scientist observed a wide range of affected wetlands, they applied their findings through statistical analysis to all non-tidal wetlands across the state. The analysis gave a baseline of information about wetland conditions in relation to areas surrounding them.
Finally, they hand-sampled wetlands for biological data and water quality to see how results related to modeling, Havens said.
Once the computers fully processed all the information, researchers saw how different types of land affected wetlands in the state. They established baseline land-use metrics, which give scientists an idea of how human impacts affect wetlands and wetland inhabitants.
The new WetCAT database will give those monitoring wetland health a reference to examine wetland restoration and mitigation. It will also give Virginia DEQ a reference for future regulation.
The DEQ grades each wetland in the database based on proximity to roads and percent land cover among other factors, Henicheck said.
DEQ permit writers will update the database by actively collecting information while surveying projects.
The new web tool will be an asset to property owners and developers who want to minimize cost and still develop in areas near wetlands, Henicheck said. “They have to by law show that they avoided and minimized (wetland impact),” she said.
Those who destroy wetlands have to replace them, typically with a larger area than they destroyed. This can be costly. A business that destroys a wetland must create another wetland, monitor what they’ve affected, pay permit fees and receive regular audits from the state.
It is also costly to the watershed, because a newly created wetland may not function like the previous one did.
Havens said the new WetCAT system will give local government environmental managers the opportunity to see the larger picture of how a local wetland ties into the state’s hydrologic system. “Part of this project is for managers to look at the system in a cumulative way,” he said.
The EPA recently awarded VIMS almost $1 million over three years to fund technical support on wetland management in Virginia. The VIMS award is an extension to the DEQ funded grants for the development of WetCAT under the DEQ wetland monitoring and assessment program.
The new WetCAT database should be complete by next summer, Henicheck said.