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Workshop improves mitigation process knowledge

Published July 22, 2015
The mitigaton project next to Whelan Lake in Oceanside will provide seasonal flooding to reestablish a wetland environment. This section of one of the completed ribbon channels adjacent to the San Luis Rey River will allow water during rain events to flow around several islands that were left in place to provide habitat for endangered species.

The training at the compensatory mitigation workshop could benefits projects like this one next to Whelan Lake in Oceanside that will provide seasonal flooding to reestablish a wetland environment. This section of one of the completed ribbon channels adjacent to the San Luis Rey River will allow water during rain events to flow around several islands that were left in place to provide habitat for endangered species.

LOS ANGELES – Because the nation’s environmental rules and regulations are frequently revised, it is often difficult for permit applicants to incorporate the most recent guidelines into their work. To help improve this process, members of the Los Angeles District’s Regulatory Division conducted a compensatory mitigation workshop July 16 at the District’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

“It’s not necessarily the changes,” said attendee Michael Klinefelter, an independent environmental consultant with a long history of working with the Corps. “Think of it as providing clearer, more concise guidelines on what the Corps’ Regulatory Division needs in order to evaluate and monitor compensatory mitigation. These (rules) have been evolving for many years, and the guidelines (the Corps presented) are basically a ‘how to’ manual to comply with the ’08 mitigation rule.”

The Code of Federal Regulations defines compensatory mitigation as “actions taken to offset unavoidable adverse impacts to wetlands, streams and other aquatic resources…” It states “compensatory mitigation is a critical tool in helping the federal government to meet the long standing national goal of ‘no net loss’ of wetland acreage and function.”

The workshop focused on regional guidelines for the Regulatory Program within the Corps’ four South Pacific Division districts, encompassing Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, as well as parts of Colorado and Texas. The guidelines address selecting appropriate compensatory mitigation sites using a watershed-based approach, preparing mitigation plans to compensate for unavoidable impacts to waters of the United States and implementing successful compensatory mitigation projects.

Fifty potential permit applicants, environmental consultants and representatives from government agencies attended the workshop that addressed three procedures: regional compensatory mitigation and monitoring guidelines, uniform performance standards (i.e., tracking wetland performance), and how to determine mitigation ratios. While the workshop touched on some of the specifics of the regulations, it focused primarily on how applicants should prepare mitigation plans, including determining the appropriate amount of mitigation and the right performance standards (or targets).

“The impetus for the training is the fact that compensatory mitigation is a whole technical field in itself,” said Dr. Daniel P. Swenson, chief of the District’s Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties section.

“After receiving requests for training available to the public, and because (the Los Angeles District) Regulatory led these regional efforts and has a lot of expertise on mitigation matters, we decided to offer this training,” Swenson said.

Swenson expects the efficiency to come from the use of specialized checklists applicants can use to help with the preparation of their permit applications. The checklists provide a means to input quantitative information about the specific habitats being impacted or restored, such as vernal pools, riparian forests and coastal salt marshes.

“We expect the training to pay dividends quickly,” Swenson said. “It could be as early as next week that we see results—whenever someone uses this information and submits an improved product to us. They want their mitigation plans to go through the process as quickly as possible.  By helping our permit applicants better understand our mitigation policies and requirements, they can prepare plans that are easier for us to approve while also improving outcomes for the environment. The permitting process becomes more efficient for them and for us. Everyone benefits.”

By reviewing the information, Corps regulators can then more easily determine whether the proposed mitigation best meets watershed needs thereby helping to protect, restore, and maintain the nation’s valuable aquatic resources.

Dr. Spencer MacNeil, chief of the District’s Transportation and Special Projects Branch said, “The goal is to have a self-sustaining ecosystem by taking environmental factors into account.”

So while the process can often be an arduous and time-consuming endeavor, establishing clear guidance on the mitigation requirements and enhancing the familiarity between the public and the Corps is expected to produce more effective mitigation plans and decrease the time for permit approvals.

“It’s great the Corps is doing things like this and making it clear what is expected from the regulated public,” Klinefelter said. “That is very good.”