OK, I admit it. I missed a pretty big article series this Spring about stream restoration and nutrient reduction projects in North Carolina. Following the 'better late than never' philosophy, here's a brief summary of the series. The Raleigh News & Observer ran a 3-day series called "Washed Away" highly critical of the state's NC Ecosystem Enhancement Program (or NC EEP) in-lieu fee projects for stream restoration and nitrogen reduction.
Here is a run-down of the series' main critical points:
- Stream restoration projects in North Carolina are failing (see reference to multiple university studies in Day 3 coverage)
- There is often insufficient pricing of fees to ensure good restoration projects, and state budget and politics plays a part. Day 1 notes that ILF fees were not high enough for stream restoration, and that "During lean budget years, the General Assembly and governor have siphoned $7.6 million from the program to use for other purposes." Day 2 discusses the highly political process of setting nitrogen reduction fees.
- A broad service area for Neuse River nutrient reduction regulations means that nitrogen reduction projects often happen far away from population centers and impaired drinking water sources (see Day 2 for more). The author just barely touches on the fact that what drives this is that the point of regulation is in the estuary, not the population centers.
As Restoration Systems, a mitigation banker in North Carolina, noted in a blog post, it could be quite easy for the casual reader to miss that all of these criticisms are lobbed on the state operation of their In Lieu Fee program for stream restoration and nutrient reduction credits. It would be easy to read that series and say "a pox on all your houses" in regards to stream and wetland restoration. But a close read will show the series takes no jabs at private wetland mitigation banking.
As we mentioned in our April edition of Mitigation Mail, just prior to the release of this article series, an EPA-funded study "Compensatory Stream and Wetland Mitigation in North Carolina - An Evaluation of Regulatory Success" was released in early April by the NC Division of Water Quality. The report gave wetland and stream mitigation a passing grade: "The research showed that 75 percent of wetland and stream mitigation projects were successful in meeting their regulatory requirements - a marked improvement from two studies done in 1995 that showed a 20 percent and 42 percent success rate for wetland projects" (NC Department of Natural Resources, April 2011 press release). Interestingly, the study found no difference in the success of wetland and stream restoration projects between projects completed by the state and projects completed by private mitigation providers.
The report noted these potential areas of improvement: "Continued opportunities for improvement exist in the areas of regulatory record-keeping, understanding the relationship between post-construction establishment and long-term ecological trajectories of stream and wetland restoration projects, incorporation of ecological metrics into mitigation monitoring and success criteria, and adaptation of stream mitigation designs to promote greater success in the Piedmont physiographic region."
Expect more attention to come to monitoring the outcomes of wetland mitigation as the US EPA moves (slowly) to finalize a national study design. More news on that should be forthcoming by the Fall of 2011 and we'll keep you posted.