Wetland Fill for Proposed Superior School Raises Key Issues
In the last issue of “Habitat news”, we reported on a proposed project to construct a new middle school in a large, high quality wetland in the city of Superior, Wisconsin. This project has become one of the most contentious and complex wetland issues in the state, and there seems to be no easy resolve in sight. Here are a few background facts:
- The City of Superior lies in a low clay-lined basin at the lower end of Lake Superior. Much of the city was built on filled wetland, and almost all of the remaining undeveloped land in the city is wetland. Thus, there are few—if any— large (>5 acres) non-wetland sites within the city limits for new construction.
- In 1999, the City of Superior passed a bond referendum to build two much-needed schools, including an elementary school and a middle school, to replace four antiquated school buildings. Approval was given by the DNR and Corps in July, 2000, for construction of the elementary school, presently under construction. This project entailed filling 15 acres of wetland.
- After an extensive search for potential construction sites for the middle school, the consulting engineers decided on a site that would require 34.6 acres of wetland fill adjacent to the Superior airport. Their site plan has been recently modified (following considerable public comment) to impact a total of 24 wetland acres, but with over 4 acres of wetland in “reserve” for possible future construction of recreational areas (i.e., playing fields).
- The wetland proposed for filling is considered by the Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Endangered Resources as a high quality coastal wetland with rich plant and animal species diversity. Populations of two state threatened plants occur on the site: seaside crowfoot (Ranunculus cymbalaria) and arrow-leaved sweet coltsfoot (Petasites sagittatus). Furthermore, the only population of a rare plant known for Wisconsin, smooth black sedge (Carex nigra), is found on this wetland!
- The same wetland was considerably impacted three years ago when over 35 acres were filled to extend the runway at the airport. A “translocation” of rare plant species to other sites was undertaken to mitigate losses due to the filling of this wetland.
Issues raised by WWA and the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations during the 30-day comment period and at a special meeting held in Superior on November 16th included:
- Both the original plan to fill almost 35 acres of wetland, and the revised plan to fill 24 acres of wetland (with 4 acres in reserve), would constitute a precedent for the state of Wisconsin if permitted. Not since the creation of NR 103 in 1991, the water quality certification rules for wetland fill projects, has the state issued certification for a wetland fill of this size, save for various extensive highway projects by the Department of Transportation. The proposed wetland fill is 100 times larger than most fill requests that are routinely reviewed by the State.
- Wisconsin’s coastal wetlands are an endangered resource. Superior is one of the few locations in the state where rare and unique (red clay) coastal wetlands remain. The DNR wetland team has concluded that this wetland site is of high quality, as it contains a complement of rare and threatened plant species as well as an important bird community. The proposed wetland fill would have deleterious effects on state-threatened species.
- In 1997, the City of Superior and Douglas County (WI), along with numerous private entities (primarily rail, communications and pipeline companies), signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the DNR entitled, “Superior Area Rare Plant Conservation Agreement,” in which all signatories recognized the existence of rare plant communities in the region and agreed to continue land management practices that perpetuate the occurrence of the rare species.
- The site plan has not yet addressed the issue of storm-water runoff that would result from destroying 35 acres of wetland. The storm-water issue is perhaps one of the more compelling arguments to not build on this site, as the city is faced with mounting storm-water problems regionally. Increased runoff onto the adjoining quality wetland remnant could have additional adverse impacts due to sediment buildup, increased nutrient loading and unstable hydrology.
The DNR has indicated that it would announce a 30-day comment period after a completed conservation plan has been submitted to the DNR by the applicant. The plan is expected in mid-December.
The consultants claim they have explored every possible construction site in Superior, and that the selected site is the only site available to them. The School District is becoming impatient with the numerous delays, mostly associated with the permitting of wetland fill activities, and feel they may lose their funding if the construction does not begin soon. The proposed wetland fill would impact at least 24 acres of wetland directly, and an untold number of wetland acres indirectly. Several threatened plant species will lose small but important populations. The environmental community is viewed as “obstructionist,” interfering with the future education of the area’s school children. There is no easy solution for this project.
If this project goes through, the question remains, “What next?” If all future development in Superior must occur in wetlands, will we see the incremental and deliberate destruction of some of our state’s last remaining coastal wetlands? And what of increased flooding in the area and impacts to water quality impacts in nearby rivers and Lake Superior due to storm water runoff?
Is a better SAMP a solution?
In 1995, the Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) was completed for the City of Superior. The SAMP was the product of a tedious and expensive multi-year deliberation and planning process. The SAMP was designed to allow for planned development under extraordinary conditions—limited development potential due to the preponderance of wetlands in the city. The plan essentially allowed for targeted development in designated areas including wetlands. Permits for wetland fill in the SAMP sites would be automatic through the US Army Corps of Engineers. This would alleviate the need to apply for a wetland fill permit for every new project proposed in the city, as long as they fell within the SAMP.
Now, five years after its completion, most agree that the SAMP is limited in its effectiveness, if not inherently flawed. The airport runway extension that filled 35 acres of wetland fell outside of the SAMP plan, and required “special legislation” for its completion. The proposed middle school construction project, for example, would only partially be covered by the SAMP. Other developments in wetland sites within the city have been approved outside of the SAMP process.
The Superior SAMP will be up for a “mid-term” review starting in early 2001. This will be an important opportunity for the scientific and conservation community to help review the plan, make appropriate revisions, and ensure that important wetland areas are protected in perpetuity. We would hate to have to rush to Superior every time a new development project is proposed in a wetland. Better to have a well-conceived plan that accommodates modest growth and development while protecting important wetland resources.