Clark County wetland bank clears final hurdle

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Today it’s a mosaic of high grasses, blackberries, pasture grazed to bare dirt and ponds swelled by spring rains.

But a 154-acre parcel owned by the Port of Vancouver is about to become the site of a bold experiment that will restore and preserve one large wetland to offset the filling or draining of many smaller wetlands along a swath of the Columbia River floodplain stretching from Bonneville Dam to the city of Longview.

Excavation and preparation of the property, which lies on the north side of Lower River Road and across the street from the site of a proposed Farwest Steel fabrication plant, will begin in August. Extensive planting of trees and other wetland vegetation is scheduled for next spring.

The property, part of the former Rufener Dairy, will become Clark County’s first certified wetland mitigation bank, with others likely to follow.

Developers, including local governments and public utilities, will be able to buy wetland “credits” from the “bank” to offset the destruction of wetlands elsewhere .

The project, in the works for five years, won approval late last year from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Ecology. It cleared its final hurdle this week after Woodinville-based Habitat Banc NW provided financial assurances to regulators and won approval to release the first eight credits.

Over the next 10 years, as the site is transformed to a fully functioning wetland, a total of 50 wetland credits will become available, project manager Victor Woodward said.

The Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank’s first customers will be the city of Vancouver, BNSF Railway and the port itself.

The city will buy 1.3 credits to replace a failed mitigation site near state Highway 14 and 192nd Avenue that it inherited as part of a road construction project at the time the area was annexed. The previous owner’s effort to create wetlands on the site failed due to a lack of water.

The port will buy a yet-to-be-determined number of credits from the bank to compensate for impacts to wetlands from rail and utility improvement projects on port property.

And BNSF Railroad has contracted to buy 1.4 credits for a project to provide rail line improvements in the Longview area.

Each credit will be priced at $190,000. A credit represents the restoration of roughly three acres of wetlands, Woodward said.

The port is in a unique position in that it will both purchase credits and, as owner of the Rufener Dairy property, pocket 20 percent of the revenue from the sale of those credits.

“We will reinvest that money into the port facility,” said Patty Boyden, director of environmental services for the port.

The port also will have the first option to buy additional credits as development of its long-range expansion plan proceeds.

Right now, Habitat Banc NW is limited to selling eight credits at the Columbia River site, but that number will increase incrementally.

“We’ll get to sell a few more when we have provided evidence that we’ve built the site,” Woodward said. “Then we’ll get (to sell) credits when the trees reach certain densities, and when all the wetland vegetation reaches certain milestones.”

Critical role

Natural wetlands play a critical environmental role by filtering pollutants, collecting and releasing floodwaters, and providing habitat for a wide range of fish and wildlife species. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 recognized their importance when it required “no net loss” of wetlands due to development.

For most of the law’s history, regulators have required developers to comply by planting trees or completing other on-site mitigation projects. But many of those smaller projects have failed. In 2002, the Department of Ecology estimated that only 13 percent of on-site wetland mitigation projects in Washington were fully successful.

Supporters of wetland mitigation banking take the holistic view that restoring large wetlands in a watershed, even on sites distant from where natural wetlands are destroyed, is more likely to be successful.

“Mitigation banks are large-scale restoration projects, built by firms that specialize in restoration work and are strategically located in the watershed to insure success and provide valuable hydrologic and wildlife benefits,” Woodward said. “Mitigation banks are carefully planned, executed, monitored and protected so that high quality mitigation is guaranteed to be successful.”

As early as 2001, the National Research Council urged regulators to take a fresh look at the program that allows developers to fill in wetlands in exchange for restoring or creating others nearby. Before granting permits to fill natural wetlands, the council said, they should give greater consideration to how restored or newly created wetlands can best replicate the ecological functions of naturally occurring wetlands and become a sustainable part of the larger watershed.

“A broader geographic area needs to be considered when deciding which wetlands to restore and where to place new wetlands so they continue to serve the ecological needs of the entire watershed and have a higher chance of long-term survival,” the council said.

The Corps of Engineers and the Ecology Department have officially endorsed the concept of wetland mitigation banking. Habitat Banc NW currently administers a half-dozen habitat banks in Washington.

Not everyone agrees that long-distance mitigation is the ultimate solution to wetland loss.

“The only way to ensure no long-term degradation of wetlands is not to degrade them,” David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, told The Columbian in 2008.

The jury may still be out on the long-term effectiveness of wetland mitigation banking. But it’s clear that prospects are rosy for Habitat Banc NW, especially in Southwest Washington.

The company expects to sell additional credits from its Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank to offset impacts from high-speed rail projects between Seattle and Portland; to allow various Columbia River ports to build additional infrastructure and space for new tenants; to compensate for the impacts of the Columbia River Crossing and other highway projects; and to offset the impact of new Bonneville Power Administration power line rights-of-way.

Private commercial and residential developers and home-owners may also choose to purchase bank credits to offset the impacts of development, Woodward said.

That’s more likely with two of the company’s other pending projects: A proposed 113-acre wetland mitigation bank at Fargher Lake, which will sell credits to offset wetland loss in a portion of the East Fork of the Lewis River watershed that extends from Battle Ground to Ridgefield, and a separate project being developed in cooperation with the city of Battle Ground.