Environmental scientists and geology (Part 2): Geology and soil science in the ‘Wetlands and Waters Permitting’ process in the USA

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Deborah Painter (USA)

I am an ecologist and general environmental scientist specialising in transportation, energy and industrial development planning to minimise deleterious environmental impacts. I live in the United States and have also written several articles for this magazine. One of the things I really appreciate is just how important local geology and soil science are in one of the aspects of work I do: delineating wetlands and obtaining permits from regulatory agencies for work in wetlands and waters. This is the second of three articles on how environmental scientists apply this knowledge. The first is entitled Environmental scientists and geology (Part 1): The first phase of an environmental geology investigation.

The discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the USA and most categories of work in navigable water bodies require US Army Corps of Engineers authorisation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1972. These activities also require Section 401 Clean Water Act permits from their state governments. The Federal definition of “waters of the United States” includes rivers, small streams, bogs, most nontidal wetlands, many lakes, mud flats, bays, the US territorial sea, and even many drainage ditches (Figs. 1, 2 and 3). They do not include isolated, nontidal wetlands with no connection to interstate commerce. However, a state may assert jurisdiction over these isolated wetlands under its Section 401 program, if it chooses.

Fig. 1. In New York State, northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is a common nontidal wetland tree. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)
Fig. 2. This bottomland hardwood swamp is not isolated and is jurisdictional. (Credits: Emily Foster.)
Fig. 3. The US Army Corps of Engineers may want to assert jurisdiction over this agricultural drainage ditch and, if I or another scientist feel it is not jurisdictional, we must provide strong evidence that it is not connected to waters of the United States. (Credits: Emily Foster.)

Any work in navigable waters of the US will need a Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 authorisation, tied into the permit issued under Section 404. Many states and localities have regulations that add to the Federal regulations involving waters. For example, in counties and cities within the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Virginia, properties adjacent to or within tidal and nontidal perennial streams are under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and, if the owners wish to fill or dredge, buffers of up to 60.96m from such wetlands and streams need to be surveyed due to limited development constraints.

Counties and cities along the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries have jurisdiction over wetlands and waters up to 1.5 times higher than the elevation of the high tide mark. They issue their own permits. In New York State, the Freshwater Wetlands Program under the Freshwater Wetlands Act requires that a 30.48m buffer be surveyed around wetlands of a certain minimum size (Fig. 4). In addition, United States Coast Guard authorisation is required for all work in navigable waters, which is separate from the Corps of Engineers permit.

Fig. 4. This red flag indicates the 30.48m upland buffer around wetlands at a site in upstate New York. The flag label faces away from the buffer line and that which is behind the flag in the photo is the buffer. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

There are permits tailor-made for certain types of activities, such as the dozens of Corps “Nationwide” permits. One is for shoreline stabilisation construction. Another covers buried utility lines, and so on. Many permits require compensatory mitigation for stream, wetland and/or submerged aquatic vegetation impacts, depending on the type of project and the size. If any stream modification is required, a fluvial geomorphologist redesigns the stream in that reach so that permits can be obtained.

The United States is not the only nation with these kinds of laws and regulations. Many countries have very similar regulations. However, the complexity of all these US regulations seems daunting, but that is why people like me, with many years of experience, obtain the permits for projects having more impacts than a simple residential pier or boat lift. The process can take many months, and the client needs a company or individual who knows about geographic information systems (GIS), as well as ecology and the permitting process and what aspects of the proposed construction can be permitted and what likely cannot.

That is why I stress to clients the importance of sitting down with me to create a plan early on to start background investigations, as soon as the project design is half finished. This will help to avoid impacts during and after construction, wherever possible, and minimise unavoidable ones.

Before going after permits, one must of course first survey (“delineate”) the wetlands and streams. Before going in the field, I conduct a desktop review of potentially jurisdictional waters in the project footprint and just outside it. I also look for hydric soils on the official soil maps. I delineate wetlands using the Routine Wetland Determination method as defined in the 1987 Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual. I look for positive evidence of all three of the following: hydric soil, wetland hydrology and a predominance of plants adapted for moist or wet soils.

The soil study at each data point is not exhaustive; it consists of documenting the hue, value and chroma of the soil, and its mottles at varied depths and characterising textures using the Munsell Soil Color Chart book (Fig. 5). (Chroma is the relative purity or strength of the spectral colour and increases with decreasing grayness.) I also determine the presence and linear extent of drainage divides and stream channels. GIS instrumentation is used to plot the data points and other waypoints for later creation of survey maps.

Fig. 5. The soil is augered to a depth of 46cm and hue, value, chroma, mottle size and texture are documented. (Credits: Emily Foster.)

In all waters, we need to address potential impacts to listed Federal and state endangered and threatened species under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act; and historical and archaeological resources under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Both Sections are triggered whenever a Federal agency reviews a project (Fig. 6). Any Native American or Native Hawaiian tribes in the vicinity must also be consulted under Section 106.

Fig. 6. Historic resources include homes, older aircraft hangars, cemeteries and older public buildings, to name just a few. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

The seasonal movements of fish that move upstream or downstream to spawn must be considered in in-stream construction scheduling. Adjacent landowners need to be contacted. Of course, work in tidal waters will have certain impacts and construction norms that are not relevant to nontidal waters, and vice versa. For example, in large tidal waterbodies in Virginia, we must examine potential impacts to public oyster areas, known as Baylor grounds, and private oyster cultivation areas as well (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Oyster grounds need to be considered in the permitting process in tidal waters. (Credits: Danielle Veelbehr.)

GIS is a vital component of the permitting process I undertake. It is done by a GIS analyst who has completed at least a two-year degree program. Together, we are a team, calculating the impacts and preparing the permit sketches.

The smallest stationary construction project for which I have obtained permits from Federal and state agencies to date is probably a small bridge over tidal wetlands at Tangier Island, Virginia (Fig. 8). It was replaced with a bridge of the same dimensions and so the potential impacts were mostly confined to temporary turbulence of the water column. Cofferdams solved that problem before it began. (A cofferdam is an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out. This pumping creates a dry working environment so that the work can be carried out safely.)

Fig. 8. The railings for this small bridge at Tangier Island, Virginia, scheduled for replacement, are not Virginia Department of Transportation approved. They were installed temporarily because residents of this tiny and remote island stole the lumber for firewood or other use. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

The smallest, non-stationary project thus far was the installation of meteorological monitoring buoys within two large wind farms off the coast of New York. The buoys are held in place by anchors. Most of my permitting projects have been large, like the widening of the Route 35 Bridge over the Nottoway River in Southampton County, Virginia. The construction impacted approximately 0.80ha of wetlands and approximately 0.50ha of in stream impacts resulting from additional bridge piles (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. The bridge spanning the Nottoway River in this rural area of Southampton County, Virginia is seen in the background. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

Compensatory mitigation for impacts to the waters of the US is required under the Section 404 Individual Permit and many of the Nationwide permits, as well as many state permits. Fig. 10 is a tidal mitigation site of approximately 1.2ha that I designed on city of Norfolk, Virginia property along the Indian River, to compensate for wetland losses caused by the Indian River bridge widening project.

Fig. 10. The tidal wetlands in this photo are constructed wetlands, serving as compensation for tidal wetlands nearby that were filled so that a bridge could be widened. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

The site was once residential home parcels and most of it was upland. The city acquired the parcels because the owners did not pay their property taxes for a long time. Such mitigation projects require geologists to take borings of the wetland soil. For the Indian River project, I used the boring data to order clean soil of similar grain size to be brought to the site once the uplands were graded to the elevation of the adjacent natural tidal wetlands. I selected the vegetation for the plantings, furnished by greenhouses that specialise in wetland mitigation.

A typical project requiring geotechnical analysis of sediment was the Fishermans Cove Federal Channel project. Fishermans Cove is the name given to a portion of a tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, known as Little Creek, that is just east of the Route 60 Bridge. “Pretty Lake”/”Fishermans Cove” is essentially the same waterbody as Little Creek, although it is sometimes depicted with these names on maps.

The plan was to use Federal and city money to dredge this section of the waterbody and add it to the list of Federal channels. The dredged channel was to tie into the existing Federal channel to the east at Little Creek near the United States Naval Reserve Little Creek Amphibious Base. The surroundings are densely developed with restaurants, small marinas, tackle shops and boat slips for recreational and commercial boats (Fig. 11). Drafts of boats using the waterway range from 2.1m down to less than one meter. Shoaled areas inside the cove restricted navigation for both commercial and recreational watermen.

Fig. 11. Vessels using Fishermans Cove were experiencing problems coming and going at low tide. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

Boaters were forced to wait for the tidal cycle. Some had damage to their boats from scraping their keels and running up against shoals. Near the north-eastern flank of the Route 60 Bridge is a wetland mitigation site constructed by the Virginia Department of Transportation to compensate for tidal wetlands displaced by some recent bridge widening. It is the only undeveloped parcel along Fishermans Cove. The designers and I knew we needed to come up with a channel design that would do the job, while not causing slumping along the dredge cut that could imperil these wetlands (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12. During design of the dredge cut for Fishermans Cove, engineers had to ensure that constructed wetlands shown here were not impacted. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

The recommended plan was a channel approximately 1,417m long, from the existing Federal channel in Little Creek into Fishermans Cove, with a channel depth of 0.30m at mean lower low water and channel width of 30.48m.

An estimated 3,822.7m3 of sandy dredged material would be removed by hydraulic and/or mechanical dredge for construction of the proposed project. This volume included 0.30m of advanced maintenance and 0.30m of allowable over-dredging. During the design phase, physical analysis of core samples from six stations in the proposed channel area indicated that the material consisted of fine to coarse sand and fine gravel with spatial variations of between 87.3% and 97.7% sand.

Material was proposed to be used for beach nourishment at City Beach, just west of a residential area near Fishermans Cove. Fig. 13 is a photograph of City Beach taken prior to the acquisition of the permits to dredge Fishermans Cove.

Fig. 13. The City of Norfolk had placed sand mixed with bottle caps, fibre, shells and cans atop the dune at City Beach near Fishermans Cove. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

The beach was not suitable for visitors and was closed to the public. Decades previously, the City of Norfolk had placed hundreds of cubic meters of highly erodible fill atop the natural dune, with the intention of slowing the erosion along an escarpment. The fill consisted of fine-grained sand, fibre, shell fragments, aluminium cans, and plastic bottle caps. This was ineffectual as the escarpment encompassed the elevation of the fill. My supervisor and I personally pulled several aluminium cans and pieces of fibre from the dune during a site visit. Fig. 14 depicts the dune after removal of this fill, the dredging of the cove and the beach nourishment using the sand from the dredged channel. City Beach now looks like a normal beach in Norfolk.

Fig. 14. The erodible fill was replaced with sand from Fishermans Cove and the dune now supports more dune species. (Credits: Deborah Painter.)

As the project required an Individual Permit from the Corps of Engineers, the Corps issued a public notice. The public had the opportunity to comment for a 45-day period prior to the issuance of Federal and state permits. The project also required a National Environmental Policy Act document completed months before construction, because it was partially paid for with Federal funds. I research and write these documents. They will be covered in more detail in Part 3 of this three-part series.

The other parts in this series comprise:
Environmental scientists and geology (Part 1): The first phase of an environmental geology investigation
Environmental scientists and geology (Part 2): Geology and soil science in the ‘Wetlands and Waters Permitting’ process in the USA
Environmental scientists and geology (Part 3): Geology and soil science in the ‘National Environmental Policy Act document’ process in the USA


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Weakley, A.S. 2015. Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States. UNC Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 1320 pp.

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