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Effects of Section 404 Permits on Wetlands in North Dakota


The Section-404 regulatory program is complex and requires involvement and cooperation by many groups. Results from my study provide resource and regulatory agencies with information on the strengths and weaknesses of the Section-404 program. Based on this study, many aspects of the program in North Dakota seem to be effective. However, there are some features that could be improved.

The Section-404 process is valuable because it allows reviews of large, complex discharges that could potentially have significant adverse effects on the environment. Mitigation can avoid or minimize habitat losses and compensate for impacts on the environment. However, the Section-404 process seems to allow few, if any, reviews of small discharges thought to have minor effects on the environment, such as those authorized by nationwide permits. Although nationwide permits are intended to authorize discharges thought to have minimal individual and cumulative environmental effects with little delay or paperwork, this approach does not always provide an accurate evaluation of the environmental effects of proposed discharges. Furthermore, although consideration should be given to individual and cumulative effects of these discharges, a system that allows an accurate evaluation of the cumulative effects on the environment is not in place.

Less than 1% of discharges regulated nationally by the corps are denied (J. Studt, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chief of Regulatory, Washington, D.C., personal communication). This seems low given that the corps regulates more than 90,000 discharges/year. In most cases when a denial is considered, the applicant is encouraged to modify the discharge or withdraw the application so that a denial is not required. This substantially reduces the number of denials that are issued nationwide.

A tracking system with pertinent information on permitted discharges would allow better decisions on proposed discharges. The corps, in cooperation with the service, has been working on implementing such a system with a database and a geographic information system (R. Gebhard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 6 GIS Coordinator, Denver, Colorado, personal communication). Although this system is only in the developmental stages, full implementation of it in all corps regulatory offices is planned.

Interagency cooperation in the form of meetings and other communication can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the permitting process. This approach has been effective in North Dakota and seems to be an important factor in the success of the program in that state. In Bismarck, interagency meetings between the corps, service, Soil Conservation Service, and state agencies are held biweekly to discuss concerns about proposed discharges. Commenting agencies have an opportunity to become aware of and comment on proposed discharges they may not otherwise have known about. These meetings seem to facilitate better protection of wetlands by facilitating discussions of concerns and practicable alternatives in greater detail than otherwise possible. Regulatory offices of the corps are often located in the same cities as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field offices and other resource agency offices, making interagency meetings feasible. These meetings facilitate a better understanding of proposed discharges into wetlands and help maintain good working relations between the corps and other agencies. This approach to permit processing, used extensively in Bismarck, should be used whenever feasible.

Reviews of permitted discharges into wetlands are an important component of the regulatory process. Little follow-up of discharges is done by either the corps or by commenting resource agencies because of lack of time, personnel, and money (W. Bicknell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, personal communication). Documented findings, like those provided by this study, are needed by managers to aid in sound decision-making that improves Section-404 program and ultimately better protects wetlands.

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