by Dan Donayre, Senior Wetland Specialist
As a result of falling commodity prices, farmers have been looking at different avenues to profit from marginal land. One of these is to restore wetlands and place them in the state and federal wetland banking system. These systems allow landowners to restore agricultural land to its presettlement condition and receive compensation through the sale of wetland credits. The credits are generated through the restoration of previously converted wetland and surrounding upland buffer. The credits are sold to public and private entities that impact wetlands and are required to mitigate those impacts through the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Wetland Conservation Act (WCA).
Newly restored wetlands and associated upland buffers are placed within a Conservation Easement with the State of Minnesota. This easement requires an access point from a public road. Both the easement and the access are set in a permanently recorded easement with the state. Once the conservation easement is signed, the site can no longer be farmed, including haying.
Designing a wetland restoration requires a combination of historical reviews, watershed planning, hydrologic analysis, engineering and botany. Without understanding the immediate needs of the watershed or the history of the proposed restoration site, the likelihood of the restoration failing is magnified. These two items help define wetland hydrologic restoration. If the proper site is chosen, one that shows wet signatures, contains hydric soils, is supplied by a sufficiently sized watershed and is completely contained on the owners’ properties; then wetland hydrology can be restored. The engineering component of a restoration should be simplified, avoiding highly engineered sites that include berms, excavations, etc. With fewer moving parts, this simplified approach has a better chance of success because maintenance is minimized and it focuses on restoration rather than creation. GIS-based software is used to determine plant community boundaries, allowing for the development of sustainable native plantings on the site. Every site is different, therefore careful consideration of plantings is necessary. For example, an isolated prairie pothole restoration is easily planted with diverse native seed mixes and plugs, while a flow-through wetland that may be susceptible to invasive species requires a seed mix with aggressive grass and sedge species that can outcompete invasives.
Permitting these restorations is an ever-changing process where new requirements present themselves on a regular basis. Because of this, the permitting process takes two years or more with three phases to gain state approval and four for federal approval.
The first step is to complete the Draft Prospectus. This document can be completed by the applicant with help from the local Soil and Water Conservation District. This is a simple document that addresses the basics of the restoration for review by the agencies in deciding if the site is viable.
If the agencies find the site is viable, a Prospectus is developed. The Prospectus is a complex document that requires assistance from a wetland specialist with an understanding of wetland restoration and the wetland bank permitting process. The document includes:
An easement description
Existing and historical conditions
Outcomes and crediting
Vegetation and monitoring plans
Construction plan set
The goal of this application is to give as much detailed information to the agencies to review as possible, limiting comments during the third phase of the application.
The third phase is the Draft Instrument, which includes all the same items as the Prospectus, addressing any comments from the agencies, as well as:
Prospectus agency comments
Hydrologic analysis and hydraulic analysis
Draft Mitigation Banking Instrument
This is the final phase for the WCA approval. The CWA approval requires one additional step, the Final Mitigation Banking Instrument. This is the legal agreement between the landowner and the U.S. Government that summarizes the Draft Instrument. Once all permitting requirements have been achieved, the landowner can begin the construction process and begin receiving credits.
Credits are released after meeting the requirements of the Performance Standards. The Performance Standards are a series of benchmarks reached through the establishment of wetland hydrology and a native plant community. Examples of these are depth of water table, percent of native species, percent of invasive species and aerial coverage. These benchmarks are measured by performing several site visits during the growing season to measure hydrology and conduct vegetation surveys. At the end of each growing season, an annual monitoring report is submitted to the agencies detailing the findings of the site visits, requesting the release of credits if any of the benchmarks have been met.
The most important aspect of a restoration is the monitoring phase. No matter how good the design or site selection, it is here that the restoration either succeeds or fails. Monitoring identifies vegetative and hydrology issues. GIS-based software then incorporates GPS surveys and data collection for direct correlation between monitoring results and the vegetative and hydrologic management needs.
A successful wetland restoration can easily become a profitable venture. The average design cost of a restoration site is between $75,000 to $100,000, with construction costs being dependent on the site. With the price of wetland credits between $30,000 and $40,000 per acre in southern Minnesota, the option of restoring marginal land to presettlement wetlands may be a great choice for income stability.