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From Waste to Wetlands

Landfills, wetlands and the story of The Ugly Duckling.

November 10, 2011

8 Min Read
From Waste to Wetlands

By Randy L. Vogel, Principal Ecologist, Applied Ecological Services

Remember the story of the ugly duckling? When he was young, everyone thought he was, well, ugly! But once the ugly duckling matured he turned into a beautiful swan. Since we’re talking about waterfowl, perhaps it is only appropriate we also talk about wetlands. (Right about now you are probably wondering, “What the heck do ugly ducklings, swans and wetlands have to do with landfills?”)

A landfill is sort of like the ugly duckling. While it is operating, it is not very attractive. But if you plan your end-use well and the closed site includes healthy wetlands and other natural ecological communities, it can be a beautiful swan.

When landfills need to be sited or expanded, there are often unavoidable impacts to wetlands. The landfill operator, regulators and the general public usually view this as a negative. But with a little creativity and expertise, a comprehensive wetlands plan can be developed that transforms both the wetlands and the landfill into beautiful assets rather than iabilities. Before discussing how this might work, let’s discuss just exactly what a wetland is and why it is important.

Wetlands 101

When the word “wetland” is mentioned, most people conjure up mental images of a mucky swamp or a cattail marsh. But many different ecological communities are classified as wetlands. Some wetland types are known by exotic names such as “calcareous fen” or “sedge meadow.”
A very basic definition of a wetland, as used in a regulatory context, is a site where the soil is regularly saturated or inundated for a long enough duration in the growing season that hydric soil conditions have developed and the dominant plants are hydrophytes (plants specially adapted to grow under such wet conditions). What this means is that there are many types of wetlands that don’t even have an open water component.

Some wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act and a federal permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must be obtained to impact them. Other wetlands may be regulated by state or local governments. Wetland regulation is far too complex to discuss in this article, but suffice it to say that if your landfill siting or expansion project includes areas with wetlands, permits will be required.

So why all this fuss about wetlands and why should we care? It’s because wetlands are some of the most ecologically important communities on the planet. Wetlands actually act as the kidneys of the landscape, helping to keep the overall ecosystem healthy by cleaning water and removing pollutants. As wetlands are lost so are these functions. The result is polluted water where fish and water-dependent wildlife are damaged or destroyed. Human use of the water may even be precluded.

Wetlands also support extremely diverse populations of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals, greatly adding to the biodiversity of an area.

Wetlands as Assets

There are several ways wetlands can benefit your landfill. Let’s start with the stormwater plan for the landfill. Wetlands can be used as an integral part of an overall ecological stormwater treatment system. Such a system must account for the entire site: the landfill itself, haul roads, the scale house, parking lots, etc. By directing stormwater through and across meadows planted with deep-rooted native plants and into swales that direct the water into a wetland or series of wetlands, the “kidneys” will be allowed to do their work and the water will be cleansed prior to exiting the property.

This also maximizes the opportunity for stormwater to infiltrate the soil, which will decrease the volume that actually enters a receiving stream. It is this loss of infiltration capacity that contributes to flooding in most urban areas.

Wetlands can also play an important role in the ultimate end-use of the landfill property if the closure is planned with an ecologically focused end-use in mind. Under such a plan, the entire site can feature diverse and healthy ecological communities that could serve as the basis for a new passive recreation park with trails and open space.

By employing wetlands in an ecological end-use plan and by promoting the value of a new “nature park” for your community, the same wetlands that were once seen as a liability can become a tremendous public relations tool for the landfill. This scenario also positions you for later transferring the closed landfill to a land trust or government agency, which can have positive tax implications.

On-Site Mitigation vs. Mitigation Banking

If wetlands will be impacted as a result of the siting or expansion of a landfill you will undoubtedly be required to mitigate for the loss of those wetlands. This mitigation can be accomplished in a variety of ways including replacing the wetlands within your property boundaries or by purchasing wetland credits from a wetland mitigation bank. If you plan to replace the wetlands on-site, again it should be done with end-use in mind. Through careful planning you can maximize the functionality, use and enjoyment of such wetlands when the landfill is closed.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you will be able to use this on-site mitigation wetland to help meet stormwater treatment requirements, as regulators consider this “double dipping.”

Federal rules also require such a wetland mitigation area to be permanently protected via a conservation easement or some other protective instrument as a condition of your permit. A conservation easement remains with the property title upon transfer, making it even more important to consider the end-use of the property and the placement of such features in the landscape. This may also set the stage for ultimate transfer of the property upon closure, as the entity interested in holding the conservation easement would likely be interested in receiving the entire property.

If you do not wish to create mitigation wetlands on-site, you may have the option to purchase credits from a “wetland mitigation bank.” These are sites that have been designed, permitted and constructed to help meet the mitigation needs of anyone who may be impacting wetlands. The developer of a wetland bank usually restores wetlands in previously drained wetland areas or creates new wetlands in appropriate low-lying areas. When a bank is built, it increases the acreage of wetlands in its local area, and those wetland acres serve as “credits.” When someone impacts a wetland they can purchase credits from the bank rather than create their own wetland acres as mitigation. Thus, there is no net loss over the acreage that was present in the local area prior to construction of the bank.

The process of permitting, constructing, monitoring and maintaining a wetland bank is complex and the performance standards imposed upon the banker are stringent. Therefore, the wetlands created are usually very high quality. If there is no wetland mitigation bank in your area, yet your project will unavoidably impact wetlands, you can consider partnering with a wetland mitigation banking expert to create a bank on your own property. Not only can you use it to meet your own mitigation needs, you can actually receive revenue from the sale of credits to others.

Assuming you have adequate and appropriate land for a bank within your holdings, this could be an attractive alternative when considering how to meet your mitigation needs. Such a venture can be structured as a stand-alone, arms-length arrangement with an ecological design/build firm who handles everything from design to permitting, construction and credit sales. Or it can be structured in any number of ways with varying degrees of investment and benefit.

In any case, for landfills, it can be a creative strategy to utilize excess property, meet your own mitigation needs and generate revenue from otherwise unproductive land holdings. The wetland bank can also serve as a valuable hub for a beautiful “eco-park” upon landfill closure. Once all credits are sold from the wetland bank it is common practice to transfer the property to a land trust, park district or forest preserve district or some other unit of local government, as these ecologically healthy nature parks are invariably viewed as valuable assets.
One final idea regarding use of wetlands in the landfill setting is the potential for creation of a private hunting club. As mentioned earlier, wetlands invariably support diverse and healthy wildlife populations. Therefore they inevitably create hunting opportunities as an option for waterfowl, deer and other game species. Whether as a recreational opportunity for landfill management or employees, or for private club hunters who are more than willing to pay for such an opportunity, the hunting option translates again to an end-use that ensures a healthy, functioning ecological system and a valuable asset upon closure.

In summary, wetlands need not be viewed as liabilities but instead should be considered as functional tools and assets for the landfill and the general public. Through creative planning by an ecological professional, these amazing natural communities can serve important functions for the landfill. They can improve public perception of the landfill, provide short or long-term revenue generation opportunities and greatly increase the value of the land upon closure.

All of which means the Ugly Duckling isn’t the only one to find a happy ending.

Randy Vogel, principal ecologist with Applied Ecological Services, has directed landfill wetland restoration and wetland mitigation banking projects throughout the United States.

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