West Virginia DEP Opens Comment Period on New Wetland Assessment Tool

Environmental Alert

(by Christopher B. “Kip” Power)

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) recently released a new tool consisting of a standardized method for the functional assessment of wetlands, known as the West Virginia Wetland Rapid Assessment Method (WVWRAM). According to the WVDEP’s public notice accompanying its release, the WVWRAM represents the agency’s first effort to devise a state-specific protocol that will rate not just the quantity and type of wetlands, but also their chemical, physical, and biological integrity in arriving at a regulatory score. For permitting and mitigation scenarios (including off-site mitigation and creation of mitigation banks), that WVWRAM score will then be used as an input into the existing functional assessment tool known as the “West Virginia Stream and Wetland Valuation Metric” or “SWVM.”

The WVWRAM was developed as a part of the WVDEP’s federally-funded Wetland Program Plan and has been in the works for at least five years, with field testing in 2017 and 2018 that involved some 22 stakeholder organizations. In addition to the WVWRAM computer model, the WVDEP released an 11-page Field Form (data sheet), a User Manual, and a Reference Manual that were prepared by WVDEP scientists. The WVDEP plans to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Inter-Agency Review Team (IRT) to incorporate the WVWRAM into Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting for sites in West Virginia, and in the preparation of corresponding mitigation plans that are required to compensate for unavoidable loss or damage to wetland resources caused by permitted activities. According to the WVDEP press release, five two-day WVWRAM training workshops were held in 2019, with 122 participants from 40 organizations completing the necessary training to use the new protocol.

Generally, the agency does not expect there will be any change to the average amount of mitigation required for Section 404 projects in West Virginia, but mitigation required for individual projects will change, as the loss of low-functioning wetlands will require less mitigation than before and destruction of higher-functioning wetlands will require more mitigation. Given the amount and detailed nature of the data that will be required to be gathered and compiled, it is reasonable to expect that this new tool will increase both the time and expense associated with wetlands delineations in West Virginia.

The WVWRAM has not yet been adopted as a WVDEP policy mandate for projects involving wetland impacts but it is expected to be finalized early this year. The WVDEP has established a deadline of January 31, 2020 for interested persons to provide “comments and information” regarding the WVWRAM to its Watershed Assessment Branch. More information is available on the WVDEP’s website at https://dep.wv.gov/WWE/watershed/wetland.

If you have any questions about the WVDEP Wetlands Program, the WVWRAM, or Clean Water Section 404 permitting and mitigation in West Virginia, please contact Christopher B. “Kip” Power at (681) 265-1362 or cpower@babstcalland.com.

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