New York State now has an operational Wetland Mitigation Bank in the Rochester area, called The Cornerstone Group. The bank, 20 acres of converted farmland just south of the Rochester airport, is a mixture of aquatic bed, emergent, wet meadow, and forested wetlands. Credits banked are being used by developers to compensate for wetland impacts in the Black Creek Watershed, including parts of Monroe and Genesee Counties. The bank also mitigates for the northern portion of the Genesee River Watershed, servicing parts of Livingston, Monroe, and Genesee Counties.
Wetland mitigation banking is administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with state and local regulatory programs to lessen the impact of wetland loss. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, compensatory mitigation is required for “unavoidable” impacts to wetlands. Technically, banking can occur only after three steps are taken in the federal process for protecting wetlands. First, wetland development must be avoided if possible; second, when this is unavoidable, impacts must be minimized; and third, impacts that cannot be minimized to an acceptable level must be mitigated. Developers can often purchase “credits” from a mitigation bank established by a third party to compensate for permitted losses.
However, voicing the same outcry being heard around the country, citizens in the New York region of the Great Lakes feel that the Army Corps of Engineers favors development over preservation by “rubber stamping” permits without consideration of ecological impacts, public input, or following the clear guidelines of federal law. New York activists believe the preservation of wetlands should be the rule and not the exception in the Corps’ permitting process.
The popularity and promotion of mitigation banking adds to this concern. It is widely known that a constructed wetland makes a poor substitute for a natural wetland. This summer a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel released a report that said mitigated wetlands ALL failed to duplicate the ecological functions of the destroyed natural wetlands.
Mitigation should be tightly regulated and it should be the exception and not the rule. There must be strong scientific standards for mitigation projects, to ensure that original ecological benefits of the destroyed wetlands are fully recreated within the watershed. Evaluation of the functions that a wetland serves to the area must be carried out before destruction is permitted. And heavy fines should be levied on developers who fail to meet standards, perform necessary evaluations, or follow proper procedures.