How Mitigation Banking Has Helped To Protect Crucial Wetlands While Promoting Environmental...

Throughout the country, wetlands have seen their productivity and acreage heavily reduced, despite the benefits and beauty they offer to all lifeforms. Taking a stand against this neglect, Donna Collier and other developers have worked to help build up the mitigation banking system, which offers a bright present and future in environmental preservation.

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Donna Collier Valencia Wetlands

When it comes to the environmental picture, ecosystems like wetlands, preserves, and rivers play monumental parts that can’t be replicated easily. Wetlands in particular are extremely valuable to the people, wildlife, and areas around it, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes.

Indeed, not only do they provide immense volumes of food to wildlife, they can also serve as flood protection — trapping snow, rain, groundwater, and floodwater — while its soil offers a wealth of resources that can be used for medicine, products, and industrial and commercial production. Wetlands are nature’s water purification system.

However, despite their efficiency and value to so many different facets of life, wetlands have seen their presence in the country drastically dwindle due to urbanization and climate change. Since European settlement, the lower 48 states have lost 53% of their original wetlands. Meanwhile, the EPA’s ROE indicator shows that from 2004 to 2009, there was an average annual wetland acreage change of -13,800. That certainly doesn’t help the country’s endangered species, 43% of which directly or indirectly rely on that specific ecosystem.

In the eyes of developers like Donna Collier, that free falling drop in acreage and overall wetlands needed to be stopped. However, she discovered a change that would help to simplify and incentivize the wetland preservation system: the Final Mitigation Ruling, which helped her to transform a property that was destined for leisure golfing into the Valencia Wetlands Mitigation Bank. 

Located in Idaho, Valencia Wetlands represents a natural destination for wildlife and nature that’s all thanks to mitigation banking, which is defined by the EPA as a wetland, stream, or other resource area that’s been preserved, established, or enhanced as a way of providing compensation or offset for unavoidable impacts the area has endured. Thanks to its financial structure and partnerships, the rule has seen impressive results.

“Most people did not realize that when the Clean Water Act [CWA] was instituted in 1972, which started the requirement to replace environmental destruction, how difficult that was going to be.”

Of course, the path to that game-changing legal system would be a long one. Collier, a current founding board member and immediate past chairwoman of the National Environmental Banking Association (NEBA) before former Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) John Paul Woodley assumed the role, as well as the founder and managing partner of Valencia Wetlands Trust, explained that previous environmental rulings fell quite short of their goals.

Meant to regulate the discharging of pollutants — another cause of wetland, stream, and river loss — from waters, research showed the CWA has had mixed results. Over half of US waters are still classified as “impaired,” which means they’re too polluted to drink, swim, or fish. “The National Academy of Science did a study in 2001 and discovered a massive failure,” Collier said. It wouldn’t be until the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and EPA came together in 2008 that legality for environmental protection of wetlands and other areas — while still allowing for economic development — would see an upswing. Their work resulted in the Final Mitigation Rule, which “created a framework for environmental banking.” 

“What that 2008 rule does is allow private investors to go and find a viable piece of property that generally is much larger than any of the offsets that they provide, and they create the environmental values in advance. They use an assessment method that the Corps chooses for them based on the eco-region that they’re in, and that method allows them to quantify what they have created.”

Once the Interagency Review Team and USACE approves, the developer is given a permit to purchase wetland mitigation credits, units of trade that are used to further fill and impact wetlands. Collier explained that if investors meet the USACE’s performance standards based on the specific assessment and create what they committed to building, they are awarded credits, thereby compensating for the loss of ecological water.

How the gamble would end up was anyone’s guess when the rule was introduced. “It was a game-changer for everyone, and at the time, no one was really sure whether or not that would succeed either.” That uncertainty leaned more to the side of doubt, because at the time, “they were used to failure,” Collier recalled.

Donna Collier Valencia Wetlands

“It’s vital. There has been an unquantifiable amount of money that has just gone into a black hole for environmental purposes, and no one ever knows where the money went.”

Failure is a word that has not come close to the program. “We have a board member at [NEBA] who has provided over $500 million in financial assurances for banking projects. Since 2009, he has never had a bank failure. So, this is an absolute stunning success. It’s transparent, it’s honest, it’s fair. They’re absolutely replacing what has been impacted.” That idea of transparency is a critical component in mitigation banking, especially when compared to other programs.

The benefits that the mitigation banking program offers that could convince a person to develop a wetland or reserve through it, rather than individually, are aplenty. One of the most crucial is the time it’s cut down on in regards to permits. According to Collier, the streamlined process has resulted in permits coming out 50% faster. Risks to developers — which certainly have the potential to be abundant and costly if not dealt with correctly — are also minimized, while the process of mitigation banking can help to eliminate other tenuous steps, such as obtaining easement. These combined help to produce more efficiency and less hassle.

The mitigation banking program would become integral in Collier’s life when — working in real estate development — she acquired a property that had previously been used for a Louisiana Pacific sawmill site. Contaminated and in disarray, Collier worked to clean up the property’s status with the hopes of developing it into a golf course community. It wouldn’t be long, however, until she was reached out to and informed of the possibility of transforming the property into one that would be a shining example of the program’s power.

“Someone from the [USACE] who had had responsibility for the property brought me a stack of books about the mitigation banking program. It was fairly new, and I had never heard of it.” It would catch the attention of Collier, who then spent the next year studying both the certification requirements and the site, such as its hydrology and elevation. 

Taking the time to understand the system and how it would be beneficial, Collier made a decision, one that she certainly doesn’t regret to this day. “I decided that it much more fit my personal philosophy of wildlife and the environment, and stopped the golfing development and switched to the banking program.”

“[Bankers] have a long-term management requirement, and people don’t realize that water moves around in ways you can’t predict, both on the surface and underground.”

Under Collier’s watch, the 291-acre Valencia Wetlands — the first and largest wetland mitigation bank in the state — has been able to flourish, being certified to provide credits to seven counties across three service areas. No longer are the once-barren grounds strewn with mud and tire tracks. Instead, healthy marshes, vegetation, and lush meadows that sustain a plethora of organisms and wildlife give the eye a treat. “When you create this new environment, the variety, the numbers, and the whole ecological picture improves steadily the longer the property is protected after restoration. We’ve got a lot of at-risk species that have shown up, they’re raising their young.” 

Among some of the frequent visitors and inhabitants include ducks, turtles, herons, moose, deer, and even bald eagles. Collier saw a particularly incredible and heartwarming moment take place recently when she caught a mother otter dragging her babies to a new pond. “I did not know that the otters were raising their babies there. That’s brand new,” she laughed.

Of course, the animals aren’t the only ones that get to enjoy all the beauty and education Valencia has to offer. Collier explained that visitors are permitted to come into the Wetlands on scheduled tours, although there are precautions that have to be taken in order to ensure sustainability. “We have public access. We take school tours, and we’ve taken some other organizational tours. We let people, like photographers and small groups, go on a limited basis. You can’t have unlimited public access because it drives away wildlife, but as long as you keep it down to a controlled level, it works fine and we do have credits for education and recreation on our bank.”

Even with the attentive care that comes with mitigation banking, the wetlands require plenty of maintenance, of which Collier’s son, the site manager from the beginning, helps to attend to. In a way, the wetlands and trust are a culmination of Collier’s long-lasting love of the environment and wildlife, which began when she was gifted a camera at the age of 10. With that, she started photographing nature. “I’ve got over 15,000 hours out in the field taking pictures of the wildlife that shows up after the work that we’ve done.”

Another benefit to the banking program is that because there is so much finance and effort at stake in these projects, environments are watched very carefully in order to evaluate how they shift, which can be due to factors such as weather, withdrawal of groundwater, invasive species, and pollutants. Because of this, changes can be caught early and subsequent actions can be taken to prevent potential damages.

“If you’re watching, you can tweak things to keep it in the condition that it’s supposed to be. We do that, constantly. Before the banking program, that never happened. The sites were constructed, and people moved on. They didn’t realize weather changes, the hydrology changes, things change all the time. Having someone who’s familiar with the whole dynamics on the ground, to pay attention, it makes all the difference.”

Donna Collier Valencia Wetlands

“I’ve worked with the agencies in Washington long enough to know that they want this to succeed and are willing to address the issues. So when we bring up issues to them, they do respond and deal with them.”

Donna Collier Valencia Wetlands

While the program has shown plenty of results and potential, there are a few less-than-desirable kinks that Collier and her cohorts continue to focus on improving. A disconnect between state agencies and the ruling can result in the establishing of state programs that don’t comply with requirements. The end result is sticker shock and inconsistency. “There’s one state that set up their own state-wide in lieu fee, which is a nonprofit that accepts funds in advance, and they go out and they’re supposed to replace the impacts that they’ve permitted. They’ve ended up with tens of millions in unfunded liabilities.”

Meanwhile, the timeline that was introduced alongside the Final Mitigation Rule, a maxed waiting period of 225 days for approval, has seen struggles that can result in years of progress delayed. “There are many districts that take from three, five, to even seven years, and that is the biggest indifference that the entire environmental industry has. Because they didn’t have that sense of urgency.” However, Collier showed faith that these issues are not permanent, and are actively being worked on by participating agencies.

The mitigation banking’s success has also led to the possibility of the general system being used for other areas in environmental protection, such as with the over 1,300 total endangered or threatened species. Collier explained that both she and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) have worked to put together a framework similar to the 2008 ruling, though the sticking point is that a recovery program would be needed for banks to receive permits. 

Collier didn’t waste time or words expressing why she believes the mitigation system would be recommended over developers taking on mitigation alone. “It’s evident. The solution’s in plain sight. Doing successful environmental restoration is not as easy as people think it’s going to be.” Certainly, the more help and benefits present, the better — and wetland critters are sure to thank you for it. To learn more about Valencia Wetlands, along with more details about mitigation banking, you can visit the Wetlands’ website by clicking here.