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What Is Wetland Delineation?

By B. Turner
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term wetlands refers to bogs, marshes, and peat lands, as well as many other areas with water-bearing soil. These wetlands represent unique ecosystems that are capable of supporting plants and animals that can't survive anywhere else on earth. Unfortunately, modern development and progress poses a significant threat to wetlands worldwide, which has led many countries to take steps to protect these lands. Conservation and protection often begins with wetland delineation, which is the process of establishing formal or legal boundaries around these delicate ecosystems.

The wetland delineation process can vary dramatically based on the requirements in each country or region. Typically, delineation involves taking soil samples of the wetland itself as well as in the soil on the outskirts of the area. Crews also map the wetland, and note the presence of plant, animal, and aquatic species. Most regions define a wetland as an area with hydric soil capable of supporting wetland species and plant life. Typically, the boundary of a wetland can be defined as the point at which these features are no longer present.

After wetland delineation is complete, crews place physical markers in the field to show developers and contractors where the protected area begins. They may also create topographic or aerial maps to illustrate these boundaries. Most regions require local inspectors or agents to approve these maps and boundaries before any type of work can begin.

Wetland delineation is a very difficult process, largely because very few people can agree on exactly what a wetland is. It can be further complicated by differing definitions and requirements at the local, state, and federal level within a region. For example, the United States (US) Army Corps of Engineers provides federal standards for wetland delineation, and these standards are constantly changing. Individual US states and cities have their own definitions and standards, many of which differ significantly from the federal definitions.

Due to the complexity of this process, wetland delineation is often carried out by highly trained professionals. Some undergo training from federal or state environmental agencies, while others hold degrees in environmental science or related fields. Even in areas where specific training is not required, individuals may find that training and experience are critical to navigating the wetland delineation process. Developers should be prepared to spend a great deal of time and money preparing to establish boundaries and obtain permission before starting a project near a potential wetland.

While wetland delineation requires a tremendous investment in time, money, and effort, it also provides immeasurable benefits to society. If wetlands were disturbed, plant and animal species may not survive. Wetlands also help to reduce flooding within an area, and act as a filter for stormwater runoff to help reduce air and water pollution levels. Finally, many wetlands act as carbon sinks, helping to trap carbon gases so they can't escape into the atmosphere. Each time a wetland is disturbed, large volumes of carbon can be released in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is wetland delineation?

Wetland delineation is a process used to determine the precise boundaries of wetlands for regulatory purposes, such as compliance with the Clean Water Act. It involves a thorough assessment of soil, vegetation, and hydrology to identify areas that support aquatic ecosystems. This process helps ensure that wetland areas are protected from unauthorized development or alteration.

Why is wetland delineation important?

Wetland delineation is crucial for environmental protection and sustainable land management. Wetlands provide vital habitats for wildlife, improve water quality by filtering pollutants, and act as natural flood barriers. By accurately mapping wetlands, delineation helps to prevent the loss of these critical areas and ensures that any development complies with environmental regulations.

Who performs wetland delineation?

Wetland delineation is typically conducted by environmental consultants or scientists with expertise in soil science, hydrology, and botany. These professionals are trained to recognize the indicators of wetland presence and are often certified through programs like the Professional Wetland Scientist certification offered by the Society of Wetland Scientists.

How is wetland delineation conducted?

The process of wetland delineation involves a combination of fieldwork and analysis. Experts visit the site to observe and document physical characteristics such as plant types, soil conditions, and signs of water saturation. They use this data, along with topographic maps and aerial photography, to determine the wetland boundaries according to established federal or state criteria.

What happens if wetlands are found on my property?

If wetlands are delineated on your property, you may be subject to certain restrictions regarding land use and development. You'll likely need to obtain permits before proceeding with any activities that could impact the wetlands. In some cases, mitigation measures, such as creating new wetland areas elsewhere, may be required to compensate for the impact.

Can wetland delineation affect property value?

Wetland delineation can impact property value, as the presence of wetlands may limit the type and extent of development that can occur on the land. However, wetlands can also enhance property value by providing aesthetic appeal, recreational opportunities, and ecosystem services. The exact effect on property value varies depending on local market conditions and the characteristics of the wetland.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon999520 — On Jan 22, 2018

Wetland Delineations are a necessary part of almost any surface impact project, thanks to the Clean Water Act. Trained biologists are needed to conduct the delineation, and there are conventional rules set forth by the US Army of Engineers to follow.

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