EHS Management

Are Your Feet Always Wet if You’re Standing in a Wetland?

Does the project you are considering need a wetlands permit? There was a company in New England whose owner wanted to move to a defunct airport site located on Long Island Sound and build a state-of-the-art-facility. One of his employees was a state representative. Another was a member of the local wetlands commission. Did he get a permit?

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No. The company ended up in a nearby town in a rehabbed manufacturing building on a restored Superfund site. Even when you think a wetlands permit is a sure thing, don’t go far into your planning until you are certain of the permitting. But would you know a wetland if you were standing on (or in) one? Today we will provide some tips for recognizing a wetland—the first step in determining if you need a permit.

Would You Recognize a Wetland?

Wetlands such as swamps and marshes are often obvious, but some wetlands are not easily recognized, often because they are dry during part of the year or “they just don’t look very wet” from the roadside.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), activities in wetlands for which permits may be required include, but are not limited to:

  • Placement of fill material;
  • Ditching activities when the excavated material is side cast;
  • Levee and dike construction;
  • Mechanized land clearing;
  • Land leveling;
  • Most road construction; and
  • Dam construction.

Your project may impact a wetland if:

  • The site is in a floodplain or otherwise has low spots in which water stands at or above the soil surface during the growing season.
  • The site has plant communities that commonly occur in areas having standing water for part of the growing season (e.g., cypress-gum swamps, cordgrass marshes, cattail marshes, sphagnum bogs).
  • The site has soil called peats or mucks.
  • The site is periodically flooded by tides, even if only by strong, wind-driven or spring tides.
  • There are wetland vegetation indicators growing on the site. Nearly 5,000 plant types in the United States may occur in wetlands. These plants are listed in regional publications of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • There are wetland soil indicators on the site. There are approximately 2,000 named soils in the United States that may occur in wetlands. These are called hydric soils. If the soil in your area is listed as hydric by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the area might be a wetland.
  • There are wetland hydrology indicators on the site. Wetland hydrology refers to the presence of water at or above the soil surface for a sufficient period of the year to significantly influence the plant types and soils that occur in the area.
  • The National Wetlands Inventory or Local Wetlands Inventory map shows a wetland on the property. The Association of State Wetlands Managers provides wetlands one-stop mapping links.
  • The county soil survey map shows hydric soils within the site.
  • There are natural drainage channels or swales on the site.
  • The ground is soggy underfoot in the spring.
  • There are depressions where water pools for a week or more in the spring.
  • There are seeps or springs present.
  • There is evidence of surface scour from water flowing over the site.
  • There is a drift line of leaves or debris caught in the stems of shrubs or lodged along an elevation contour.

Think about what you would or wouldn’t do on the site. For example:

  • Would you avoid the area with heavy equipment in the spring to keep from getting bogged down?
  • Would you need to ditch the site to dry it out for planting or building?

Tip: If you are still unsure if the site you are interested in would impact a wetland, contact your nearest Corps office or the local wetlands commission.