American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Report on The Future of Wetland Assessment Workshop: 3-11-97

The Association of State Wetland Managers hosted a four day convention March 10-13, 1997 in Annapolis, Maryland entitled The Future of Wetland Assessment: Applying Science Through the Hydrogeomorphic Assessment Approach and Other Approaches. The geosciences, soils, as well as hydrology, play a significant role in this type of assessment and geoscientists must continue to work to ensure geology is a main consideration in wetlands delineation.

The process used in hydrogeomorphic(HGM) assessment is three-fold. First, wetlands are classified into one of seven categories- riverine, depressional, slope, mineral soil flats, organic soil flats, estuarine fringe, or lacustrine fringe-- based on landscape (geomorphic setting), dominant water source and hydrodynamics. Wetlands are then evaluated in terms of their functions, recognizing that different types of wetlands perform different functions. The focus on function is a change from the traditional method of assigning values to wetlands. Finally, wetlands are compared with reference wetlands, real wetlands that excel in performing the appropriate suite of functions for a wetlands class.

Mark Brinson, a Professor at East Carolina University and a 1995 National Wetlands Award winner, explained the need for a functional assessment of wetlands. Wetlands are complex and their function and area do not have a one-to-one correlation, nor do all wetlands serve the same purpose. This system allows wetlands within classes to be compared with each other, instead of competing with wetlands that serve different functions. They are also compared only by function, making a "clear distinction between science and policy."

Plenary Discussion
Tuesday morning's plenary session provided the opportunity to hear many points of view on both retrospective and future directions of wetlands. Jon Kusler, President of the Association of State Wetlands Managers, believes wetlands expertise is uneven across disciplines, with too much emphasis in biology and environmental science, but not enough focus on hydrology and geology. The coordination among disciplines also needs to be improved. Joseph Larson, Environmental Institute, examined the regulatory approach the United States has used to drive wetlands regulation, and noted the US is the only country using this approach. Many other countries use a more integrated, landscape approach. He emphasized the need for hydrological and geological information from maps, and lauded geologic maps as a foundation for the HGM method. Paul Adamus, who developed the WET assessment technique in the early 1980s, believes "junk science" is filling the gap where technically sound, but "dense", methods are currently being used. He also advocated expanding assessment information onto the internet.

The next group of speakers focused on their experiences with different assessment techniques. Candy Bartoldus, Environmental Concerns, analyzed the merits of HGM. She saw the strengths of HGM as standardized, accurate, sensitive to differences in wetland functions, and accounting for size differences. She believes that the main weakness of HGM is its inability to compare wetlands across different classes. Andy McMillian, Washington State Department of Ecology, presented lessons his department had learned in developing an assessment system. First, the need to think about the applications of the system early and often. Understand explicit and implicit assumptions, and recognize that no approach is value-free. Involve the public, policy makers, and anyone else who may be affected by the criteria in your process. Finally, manage expectation: no approach will meet all needs, but it will improve the system. John Maher, Environmental Protection Agency, applauded the improvement in the quality of water that has occurred in the 25 years since the Clean Water Act was enacted. He focused on the need to include geology and utilize US Geological Survey hydrologic codes to develop watershed plans. He also advocated voluntary monitoring of wetlands by senior citizens and college students who are environmentally conscious.

The next panel focused primarily on regulatory applications and lessons learned from them. B. Dale Simon, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, focused on the need to convince people of the value of wetlands, not of assessment techniques. He prefers not to use mitigation banking, feels the HGM method is too time-consuming, and has had negative experiences working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA. Jan Goldman-Carter, National Wildlife Federation, emphasized the importance of public participation. She sees permitting decisions as public interest decisions, with "public input being critical".

The second day was divided into breakout sessions, with each workshop addressing a specific topic. For example, one workshop focused on GIS-based assessment. Lori Sutter, North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (NCDCM), and Quinton Epps, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, shared their experience with GIS models. North Carolina utilizes GIS to understand water quality, hydrology, habitat, and potential risk to create a regional watershed based application. NCDCM then provides this information to interested parties, such as local governments, who make decisions based on their own priorities. South Carolina is attempting to model North Carolina's system, as they are still developing an assessment system. They will classify wetlands by landscape and use GIS to predict the functions.

The workshop, in presenting many varied experiences, illustrates the diversity and confusion in delineating and protecting wetlands. Although wetland loss has slowed in the past decade, we must create a clear strategy for protecting our remaining wetlands in a sensible manner that avoids the politicization that has dominated previous discussions.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs.
Last updated March 25, 1997

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