Vermont Enacts Protective New Wetlands Law
May 21, 2009
MONTPELIER – Wetlands – nature’s water filters – will be better protected in Vermont under legislation that was enacted into law today.
The bill, H.447, was the result of lengthy negotiations among a variety of interest groups. The measure will require inaccurate state wetlands maps to be updated and also mandate better protections for wetlands.
“This legislation shows what Vermonters with widely divergent interests can accomplish when they sit down and focus on what’s good for Vermont’s natural resources over the long haul,” said Kim Greenwood, staff scientist for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “All parties here have made compromises for the greater good of improving the regulation of our wetlands,” she said.
At the urging of legislative environmental leaders, in 2006 the state Water Resources Panel brought a broad group together to address issues of wetland classification in Vermont as a result of a Vermont Supreme Court decision relating to VNRC’s effort to reclassify the Lake Bomoseen wetland. VNRC saw the court decision as an opportunity to correct a deficiency in Vermont’s wetland protection laws that left many wetlands unprotected simply because they were not included on outdated state wetland maps. Wetlands filter Vermont’s drinking water, help control floods, comb out polluting sediment from water flowing into our streams, stabilize shorelines and provide wildlife habitat, among other benefits.
More than a dozen groups — including VNRC, the Vermont Realtors Association, the Vermont Forest Products Association, the Agency of Natural Resources, Agency of Agriculture, utilities, and others, spent more than three years hearing testimony on the issue and negotiating a solution to improve protection for Vermont’s wetlands. VNRC was the only environmental group involved in a two-year negotiating process that led to the bill.
Specifically, the law:
- Authorizes ANR to update the Vermont wetland maps with information it has accumulated in recent years, including using wetlands maps that towns have created.
- Allows ANR on its own or at the request of a citizen, after a public notice period, to protect unmapped wetlands when they are identified in the field.
- Requires the state to update the rules to require more protection for wetlands that are not on the maps but are similar in size or type to those that do appear on the maps, the protection of vernal pools for the first time ever in Vermont, and better guidance for landowners in locating wetlands.
Currently, Vermont regulates wetlands that appear on maps, known as Vermont Significant Wetlands inventory maps. The problem has been that those maps are outdated. Up to one-third of important wetlands are not shown on those maps and up to seven percent of the areas mapped as wetlands are not, in fact, significant wetlands. Consequently, people using the maps are making decisions based on inaccurate information.
Between 35 and 50 percent of the wetlands that existed in Vermont before European settlement have been lost or severely damaged due to draining, dredging, and filling for development and agriculture.