Summit wetlands policy only partially successful |

Summit wetlands policy only partially successful

Bob Berwyn
Special to the Daily/Bob BerwynSummit County and local towns adopted a no-net-loss wetlands policy in 1999, including areas like Cucumber Gulch in Breckenridge. Since then, 10.564 acres of wetlands have been filled.

SUMMIT COUNTY – Damage to local wetlands has been reduced, but not eliminated, since Summit County and its towns adopted a no-net-loss policy in 1999. Continued loss of wetlands could mean long-term environmental degradation, warned Tony Curtis, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Frisco regulatory office.Wetlands are considered critically important components of the ecosystem, providing wildlife habitat and a natural way of improving water quality.Seven years ago, officials at the county and local towns enthusiastically adopted the “conceptual” no-net loss policy after an outpouring of public support and interest, but all the needed measures to make the program a reality haven’t been put in place. Once grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ran out, the wetlands program, “fell through the cracks,” county planners said.Since Jan. 1, 2000, the Corps of Engineers has permitted 10.564 acres of U.S. waters to be filled, Curtis said. Between 1990 and 2000, the agency permitted fill in 55.123 acres. The Corps routinely requires mitigation at a ratio of greater than one to one. In other words, if an acre of wetlands is eliminated in one place, an acre or more must be created elsewhere. But scientific studies show such mitigation is far from successful. “The real question is this: Have permittees fulfilled the White House (and Summit County) policy of net loss when assessing the functional values of the wetland impacted?” Curtis asked. “There is presently no functional assessment model in use in Summit County. So, how do we know that the created wetland is equally successful or functioning on the same level as the natural wetland?”

Senior county officials have said they believe the no-net-loss policy is generally working.”There may be some (impacts) here and there, but I would be surprised if there’s been a net loss,” said Steve Hill, a senior special projects planner for the county. Hill said the county’s policy discourages developers from proposing projects that would adversely affect wetlands. County Commissioner Bill Wallace was also optimistic about the no-net-loss policy. He said he feels fairly certain that the policy has reduced the loss of wetlands in the county.But county planners said they have no accurate way of tracking wetlands impacts or knowing how successful mitigation efforts have been.Headwaters at riskThe areas of most concern in Summit County continue to be in the high elevation wetlands around the headwaters of local streams, including the Blue River between Breckenridge and Hoosier Pass, where the development of single-family lots is taking place adjacent to important wetlands.

Properties planned for development prior to adoption of the county’s wetland regulations were exempted from compliance.Another headwaters area of concern is in the Snake River Basin – especially the North Fork below Loveland Pass – where highway traction sand and runoff from the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area parking lot are having negative effects on wetlands. That could make it more difficult to capture and store all-important spring runoff downstream. In the bigger ecological picture, headwaters wetlands are irreplaceable and losses in those areas are difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate, Curtis said.’Out of sight, out of mind'”The big question is, how many wetlands are destroyed each year,” said long-range planner John Roberts, questioning the level of commitment to the policy. “No-net-loss is out of sight, out of mind. It’s just lip service right now,” Roberts added, saying the county dropped the ball when it came to following up with the measures needed to fully implement the policy.What’s needed is the political will and blessing from the county commissioners to move ahead with additional phases of wetlands protection, Roberts said.

Resistance from the building industry has been a factor, as has been the political shift at the national level, Roberts said. Under the Bush Administration, federal regulatory agencies have backed away from enforcement of wetlands protection.County Planning Director Jim Curnutte acknowledged that additional wetlands rules have been part of the county’s long-range plan for several years, but that they haven’t been identified as a high priority by the county commissioners. A series of three county planning memos dating back to 2002 clearly show the remaining steps needed to more fully implement a solid wetlands protection program, including adoption of specific strategies for individual planning areas. On the federal side of the equation, the Corps is considering changes to its long-term mitigation and monitoring policies, Curtis said.”Forested wetlands may need 30 years of monitoring to see if trees are replaced successfully,” Curtis said, singling out just one example of how the agency could beef up its enforcement of the national no-net-loss policy, adopted under an executive order by former president George Bush.Vail, Colorado

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