Banking on wetlands

Mitigation banks aim to benefit economic development, environment

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

A NEW APPROACH TO WETLAND MITIGATION

Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank

Size: 154 acres.

Location: Northwest Lower River Road, Vancouver.

Property owner: Port of Vancouver.n Status: Approved and operational.

East Fork Lewis Wetland Mitigation Bankn Size: 113 acres.

Location: North Clark County, near Fargher Lake area.

Property owner: Private landowners.n Status: Approved, not yet operational.

Battle Ground Mitigation Project

Size: 60 acres.

Location: Southwest 20th Avenue/Northeast 112th Avenue, Battle Ground.

Property owner: City of Battle Ground.n Status: Construction complete, accepting mitigation applicants.

Sources: Washington State Department of Ecology, Habitat Banc NW

When Woodland Public Schools made plans for a new high school in the city's north end, it ran into a hurdle that many builders know well.

There were wetlands on the site, and no getting around them.

It's a dilemma that can send any large project on a tricky path. For developers, it often means navigating a complicated regulatory maze and then building and maintaining man-made wetlands nearby. The idea is to make up for natural habitat that's buried or destroyed by construction, following state and federal rules.

The process is known as wetland mitigation. It's unfamiliar territory for most school districts.

So Woodland looked elsewhere for help -- about 25 miles to the south. The district reserved credits from the Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank, essentially planning to buy a piece of a ready-made wetland project already established near the Port of Vancouver. Woodland Superintendent Michael Green called the option "a win-win for everybody involved."

"It really takes creation of the wetlands off of our plate," Green said.

Wetland banks are still a relatively new concept in Clark County. But they're gaining favor among state regulators, builders and public agencies as new projects continue to encroach on sensitive natural areas. Victor Woodward, whose company built and maintains the Columbia River bank, expects that to happen more often as Southwest Washington continues to grow and develop. That's what made the region a prime candidate for a wetland bank in the first place, he said.

"Everywhere you turned, there were wetlands," Woodward said. "Everything was just sort of stuck."

Builders like wetland banks for the added flexibility they offer new projects. State ecology officials like them for their natural benefit, often showing more success than a smaller wetland squeezed into a construction site somewhere. The result marks only the latest shift in the evolution of mitigation efforts in Clark County over the years.

Wetlands for sale

The Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank, built on a former agricultural property owned by the Port of Vancouver, isn't the only such site in Clark County. Woodward and his son, Zachary, have a second bank in the works on the East Fork of the Lewis River, and another mitigation project under way in Battle Ground. Each operates as its own entity, under their Kirkland-based company Habitat Banc NW.

The first credits on the 154-acre Columbia River bank became available last year. It's already found some willing buyers: Of the approximately 10.5 credits released so far, about four have been purchased. By the time it's fully operational, the bank will offer 54 total credits to local developers. (Each credit is good for about one acre of wetland mitigation.)

Customers so far include the port, the city of Vancouver and BNSF Railway, securing credits to make up for wetlands impacted by various projects. Woodland Public Schools has reserved another four credits for its new high school, but hasn't finalized the purchase, according to Green.

Clark County's fast-tracked growth spurred demand for wetland banks before the Columbia River property was available for that use, Zachary Woodward said. Activity has slowed some in recent years due to the down economy, he said, but having new wetland mitigation options in place will help accommodate growth once things pick up again.

In the past, many wetland mitigation efforts happened on-site, and still do. If a project impacted natural wetlands, a man-made substitute might be created elsewhere in the same construction area. But that doesn't always translate into an ideal outcome, Woodward said, perhaps forcing wetlands where they don't belong. More recently, the use of banks has been encouraged to avoid the "backyard, parking lot-type projects that were occurring," he said.

As with any wetland mitigation project, there are restrictions on banks. Projects that use them must be in the same watershed and must first clear various state and federal rules. Developers can't simply buy credits and bulldoze any natural area they want, Woodward said.

"There's no free pass for being able to use this or any mitigation bank," he said. "That's sort of a misconception."

The same goes for Habitat Banc NW and others actually building the wetland banks, said Curt Hart, a state Department of Ecology spokesman. The goal is to have a site that works well with its surrounding watershed, he said, providing a buffer for floodwaters, a well-functioning ecosystem and habitat for wildlife.

"The one thing that we don't want to have is a wetland mitigation bank that's not serving a purpose," Hart said. "We're not going to allow something to be sited that will never work. That's not in anybody's interest."

'Evolving science'

In Battle Ground, another wetland project in the works is following a slightly different model. The Woodwards' company is shaping a 60-acre "consolidated mitigation" tied to multiple projects in the area.

Unlike wetland banks, the Battle Ground site allows developers to get mitigation credits right away. One of main beneficiaries is the city of Battle Ground, which is extending Southwest Scotton Way just to the south of the wetland site. The city paid about $270,000 for credits on that and one other project that impacted wetlands, said Public Works Director Scott Sawyer, taking away the need for on-site mitigation.

"This gives you a little more accuracy in determining the cost of a project," Sawyer said. "What this does is give us a little bit more confidence."

Even with credits sold, the former farm remains a work in progress. Zachary Woodward and a handful of workers last month planted thousands of trees on the site, hoping to take advantage of favorable weather conditions. Many replaced young trees that died in last summer's record-setting dry spell.

The site, known as the Remy property for the family that once farmed it, has plenty of characteristics that make it a natural fit for a wetland site, Woodward said. It sits at the headwaters of Mill Creek. It includes mostly native vegetation, spread out over a high water table. And it's now owned by the city, a willing partner in the project.

Different wetland projects require varying levels of work. The less construction it takes, the better, Woodward said.

"You can pretty easily tell if a site wants to revert back to what it wants to be," he said. "The whole key in the process is finding that site that really wants to be a wetland."

Wetland projects haven't always followed that model. Perhaps 20 years ago, man-made wetlands were often squeezed into inopportune locations, and took a less nuanced approach.

"They would dig a bathtub, basically," said Dan Corlett, a mitigation manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Not surprisingly, results were mixed. As the science around wetlands and mitigation has evolved, so has their design. Projects now take a "watershed approach," Corlett said. That means widening their focus, better considering how a wetland will interact with other water resources around it.

"It's definitely a young and evolving science," Corlett said.

Return on investment

For Habitat Banc NW and its partners, wetland banking is more than a science. It's a business.

"This is a for-profit enterprise. It's my money that's gone into building these sites," Victor Woodward said. "I'm hoping that I can sell credits so I can end up paying myself for all these years."

So far, the investment appears to be paying off. Habitat Banc NW operates a handful of sites in Washington, including its first in the Snohomish Basin. Credits have sold at both the Columbia River and Battle Ground sites. And the East Fork of the Lewis River bank may become operational next year, Woodward said.

The Port of Vancouver has seen the game from multiple vantage points. Port officials were in contact with Habitat Banc NW as early as 2006, discussing the possibility of buying credits to mitigate a construction project. Eventually the conversation turned to a port-owned property north of Northwest Lower River Road, which became the home of the Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank.

"We kind of went from customer to client, so to speak," said Patty Boyden, the port's director of environmental services.

The arrangement gives the port a financial interest in the outcome. The port receives 20 percent of the revenue from each credit sold through the bank. It also gets a discounted rate to use the bank for its own mitigation. Credits at the Columbia bank sell for $190,000 apiece, according to Woodward.

Long term, the ecological performance of the bank remains to be seen. Projects are designed with the kinds of vegetation and natural structures that benefit a variety of wildlife, Woodward said. Part of the goal is to create a refuge for birds and other creatures that may come from elsewhere, he said. But when any wetland is buried by construction, there are some animals that won't make it, Woodward said.

There are plenty of indicators used to gauge the success of wetland projects, Woodward said. Those include regular surveys of plant survival, natural cover and invasive species through on-site visits. Written reports are sent to state regulators. Third-party conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited also play a role.

The best indicator of success, Woodward said, is picking the right site in the first place. Years after planning began, the Columbia bank is still years away from being fully operational.

"It's the first of its kind in the county," said Boyden. "There there's a lot of interest to see how it's doing."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.