Wetlands and roads? They’re more connected than you’d think

Former Sen. Mike Green dedicates the Perry wetland mitigation site.

Did you know Michigan’s ecological landscape plays a big part in completing local road projects? An unexpected partnership, the local transportation system and wetlands across the state go hand-in-hand.

Today, the Michigan Wetland Board (MiWB) and the County Road Association (CRA) of Michigan explained this relationship at a wetland mitigation site event in Perry, Mich.

According to Michigan’s Natural Resources & Environmental Protection Act of 1994, most wetland disturbances caused by road projects must be repaid, or mitigated, with preserved wetland to maintain ecological balance. In this case, mitigation refers to the permanent creation and maintenance of a new wetland to be maintained as such in perpetuity.

A new solution 
Buying wetland from a commercial wetland bank can be costly for road agencies – up to $100,000 per acre – which takes money away from the actual road project. That’s where the MiWB program comes in.

Michigan Senator Mike Green secured legislation and a budget in 2016 to create the MiWB program, which may be unique for local road agencies nationwide (MDOT has its own wetlands to mitigate impacts of highway projects). The program is funded at $2 million per year “off the top” of the Michigan Transportation Fund, and capped at $5 million. Four years later, MiWB has a seven-member board of county and municipal road experts which approved bylaws and procedures, a part-time wetland expert to run the program, and has educated road agencies and municipalities statewide.

The MiWB program uses state funds to purchase and preserve wetland sites, and resulting mitigation credits are available to local road agencies free of charge under the board’s supervision. Credits allow road agencies to move forward with road projects while complying with environmental regulations.

“MiWB’s goal is to effectively and efficiently distribute funds to local transportation agencies, creating a system that cooperatively addresses transportation wetland impacts,” Jeff Silagy, MiWB manager, said. “The program is a win-win for road agencies and the environment.”

Depending on the scope and type of impact a road project has on an existing wetland – such as widening shoulders – the amount of wetland to be mitigated varies. A road agency must preserve or create a wetland in its watershed if the project will impact one-third acre or more. If the project affects less than one-third acre, the agency can tap a mitigation site anywhere in Michigan.

The new Perry site 
MiWB’s most recent, and largest so far, project is the establishment of a wetland mitigation site in Perry. The site contains 131 acres of wetland mitigation credits which will meet the needs for most southern Michigan road projects for years. Benefits of this site, along with other sites, include faster delivery of road projects, lower road project costs and improved, preserved green space.

Mitigation credits at the Perry site are available this year and requests will be reviewed by a steering committee of members from the CRA Seven County Council.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (MDEGLE) also reviews the sites, ensuring that they meet state standards. Wetland experts will monitor sites funded from the endowment that accompanies each project, while environmental specialists evaluate and set up sites. Most county and municipal road agencies lack expertise to maintain a wetland bank.

Benefit for county road agencies 
CRA is a strong advocate of the MiWB program and worked with the Joint Agency Transportation Committee (JATC), which includes the Michigan Departments of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and Transportation and the Michigan Municipal League, to develop legislation to help local road agencies with this costly environmental regulation.

“A wetland site mitigation program was a CRA legislative priority for several years,” Ed Noyola, CRA deputy director, said. “We appreciate former Senator Green and the rest of the Michigan legislature for sharing this vision.

“Our goal is to make wetland credits more accessible to local road agencies, therefore lessening the burden of the increasingly costly mitigation process. The MiWB program is an important tool for road agencies to comply with environmental regulations at a lower cost.”

CRA provides administrative support for the MiWB board, and its local members comprise the local steering committee.

“Our relationship with CRA, along with collaboration with other organizations, has helped us assist road agencies in fulfilling environmental regulations and sustaining our ecological landscape,” Silagy said.

As of August 2020, just over an acre of wetland mitigation credits from the Perry site have been used on seven road projects, and just over an acre of wetland mitigation credits from a site in Keweenaw County, Michigan, have been used on 14 road projects. In a trade agreement with MDOT, 11 acres from the Perry site have been traded for 11 acres from seven different wetland mitigation sites throughout Michigan.