Tools & Techniques>Wetlands

Click here to view full size picture The following information was adapted from "Watershed Resource Papers" developed for the Dowagiac River Watershed Project by Langworthy, Strader, LeBlanc, & Associates, Inc.

Part 303 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA) defines a wetland as:

“Land characterized by the presence of water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances does support, wetland vegetation or aquatic life and is commonly referred to as a bog, swamp, or marsh.”

"Wetland" is the collective term for marshes, swamps, bogs, and similar areas often found between open water and upland areas.

In the past, people viewed wetlands as wastelands --sources of mosquitoes, flies, and unpleasant odors. They believed wetlands should be avoided, or better yet, eliminated. This negative view, combined with the demand for more developable land, resulted in the destruction of large areas of wetlands. Owners and developers drained their wetlands, and converted them to farmland, or filled them for housing developments or industrial facilities.

Of the estimated 11 million acres of wetlands that stood in Michigan 150 years ago, only 3 million acres remain. Only one-fourth of the original 400,000 acres of coastal wetlands now line Michigan shores.
Benefits of Wetlands
State Regulation
Local Regulation

Benefits of Wetlands

Attitudes towards wetlands have changed with the discovery that wetlands are valuable natural resources providing many important benefits to people and their natural environment. Wetlands help improve water quality, provide important fish and wildlife habitat and support hunting and fishing activities.

Wetlands contribute to the quality of other natural resources, such as inland lakes, ground water, fisheries, and wildlife, as well as rivers and their tributaries. Wetlands store excess water and nutrients; control floods, and slow the filling of rivers, lakes and streams with sediment. In addition, acre for acre, wetlands produce more wildlife and plants than any other Michigan land cover type.

More specifically, benefits of wetlands include:

- Reducing flooding by absorbing runoff from rain and melting snow and slowly releasing excess water into rivers and lakes. (One-acre, flooded to a depth of one foot, contains 325,851 gallons of water.)
- Filtering pollutants from surface runoff, trapping fertilizers, pesticides, sediments, and other potential contaminants and breaking them down into less harmful substances, improving water clarity and quality.
- Recharging groundwater supplies when connected to underground aquifers.
- Contributing to natural nutrient and water cycles, and producing vital atmospheric gases, including oxygen and serving as nutrient traps, when next to inland lakes or streams.
- Providing commercial and recreational values to the economy, by producing plants, game birds (ducks, geese) and fur-bearing mammals. Survival of certain varieties of fish directly depend on wetlands, requiring shallow water areas for breeding, feeding and escape from predators.

State Regulation

Part 303 of NREPA seeks to protect wetland resources through regulating land which meets the statutory definition of a wetland, based on vegetation, water table, and soil type. Certain activities will require a permit from the MDEQ on a site which satisfies the wetland definition, including:

- filling or placing of material in a wetland;
- draining of water from a wetland;
- removal of vegetation, including trees, if such removal would adversely affect the wetland;
- constructing or maintaining a use or development in a wetland; and/or
- dredging or removing soil from a wetland.

Certain activities are exempt from permit requirements. In general, exempt activities include: fishing, trapping or hunting, hiking and similar activities; existing, established farm activities; and harvesting of forest products.

Wetland areas subject to regulation by the MDEQ include wetlands, regardless of size, which are contiguous to, or are within 500 feet of the ordinary high water mark of, any lake, stream, or pond; wetlands which are larger than five acres and not contiguous to any lake, stream, or pond; and those wetlands which are not contiguous to any lake, stream or pond, but are essential to the preservation of natural resources.

Generally, wetlands must be identified through individual site determinations. Accordingly, the low lying areas or wetlands shown on the Environmental Features map are for planning purposes and represent only indications of where some of these areas may be located.

Local Regulation

Wetlands that are not included within the state's regulatory authority may be subject to local controls. A comprehensive regulatory program at the local level requires a community to accurately map all of the wetlands that will be subject to local regulation. Regulations pertaining to wetland protection generally mirroring the state's are permitted if such an inventory is conducted.

Another, less comprehensive, and sometimes equally effective process, will include a requirement for a wetland determination. This determination can be conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) or a qualified firm or individual and be submitted as part of any site plan review. Wetlands found during the determination that are not subject to state regulation may be identified.

The zoning ordinance may include a number of provisions that would encourage developers to preserve unregulated wetlands. Normally, the most effective methods are based on an incentive process that would give developers either full or partial credit for wetland areas in density calculations. For example, the density for a 20 acre site with 3 acres of wetlands could be calculated by giving full density credit for the 17 unaffected acres, and 50 percent credit, or 11/2 acres for the wetlands area, for a total site of 181/2 acres for which density is calculated.

Similarly, "bonus densities" could be provided for preserved wetland areas. This process works well in Open Space Development regulations that provide incentives for preservation of open space and/or natural features.
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