Chapter 4. Wetlands

Description of the Resource

Wetlands are natural areas where standing water and/or saturated soils are present at some point during the growing season. Some wetlands may only have saturated soils for a relatively brief period in the spring while others may be permanently covered with water. Because of varying hydrological conditions, wetlands can support a variety of plant communities and water levels. Common types of wetland include wet meadows, fens, marshes, and forested wetlands.

Wetlands can vary in size from a few square feet to hundreds of acres. Wetlands can receive water from surface water runoff (rainfall), ground water (seeps and springs), or overflow from lakes and streams. Small wetlands found in slight depressions in the landscape fed by rainfall are a very common type of wetland and are most likely to be encountered within a residential subdivision.

Wetlands are protected by federal, state, and, in many areas, local laws. When a residential subdivision is built, blocks of land containing wetlands may be preserved and protected by an easement held by a third party such as an HOA or local land conservancy. These wetland areas usually have land use restrictions, such as conservation easements or deed restrictions that prohibit land uses (e.g., mowing and logging) that are not consistent with protection of the wetlands. Individual subdivision lots are often adjacent to these protected areas. It is important to make the homeowners aware of these areas and the restrictions placed on them. It is also important for HOAs to be aware of these restrictions in common areas containing wetlands that are under their control.


Wetlands are important features in the natural landscape and provide many benefits.

An important benefit of wetlands is that they provide significant flood control. Larger wetlands found along streams and rivers collect and store flood waters like a huge sponge, releasing them slowly after a large storm event. Without these wetlands, flooding is much more severe and more likely to cause property damage and erosion. Small wetlands also are important for flood control, collecting and storing surface water runoff before it can reach streams, rivers, and ponds. Wetlands reduce peak flood flows and help maintain a constant flow to rivers and streams during dry periods.

Some wetlands play an important role in groundwater recharge by collecting and storing water, then releasing it through the soil into the water table. This water is purified as it percolates through the soil before it enters the water table. The amount of groundwater recharge performed by a wetland is largely a function of its size and the permeability of the underlying soil.

Another important function performed by wetlands is water quality improvement of surface water. Surface water entering wetlands is often contaminated by sediment and other pollutants. This is particularly true of wetlands that receive flood waters. Wetlands can remove large amounts of sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants from surface water. Many wetland plants such as cattails and bulrushes are well adapted to remove pollutants. In fact, artificial wetlands have been used to treat municipal and/or industrial effluent in some areas.

Perhaps an underappreciated benefit provided by wetlands is habitat for specialized plants and animals, many of which are endangered. Many plant and animal species are adapted to live in wetlands and cannot survive without them. Amphibians, such as frogs, toads, and salamanders, require wetlands for breeding. Without wetlands, these species will not survive. Some animals require certain types of wetlands with specific water levels. Others depend on wetlands for a specific portion of their life cycle and then use upland areas for the remainder of their life. It is important to have a diversity of wetland types as well as surrounding upland areas to support the wildlife that depend on these areas.

Wetlands provide recreational opportunities, including bird and wildlife watching, hiking, and photography. Many popular parks, both large and small, are focused around wetland areas.

For a more detailed explanation of the benefits of wetlands, see and Appendix 4-1: Functions and Values of Wetlands

Technical Best Management Practices

Debris/Trash Removal

In the past, wetlands were often used as dumping areas. Remnants of well over 100 years of dumping can be found in wetlands throughout the United States. Wetlands were considered waste land and were not considered important. Today, times have changed and wetlands are recognized as a valuable natural resource.

National, state, and local laws prohibit dumping or filling in wetlands. It is important for HOAs and individual homeowners to maintain these areas. Trash, including items such as grass clippings, leaves, pet waste, and landscape debris, should never be placed into a wetland or any other natural area. These items contain large amounts of nitrogen and organic matter that may alter the ecosystem of a wetland and destroy existing wildlife habitat. In addition, grass clippings often contain toxic chemical residue from lawn chemical application. Dumping landscape debris into a wetland may also introduce invasive plant species into wetlands.

Lawn and landscape debris should be disposed of away from wetlands or taken to a municipal composting facility. Many municipalities have periodic curbside pickups for these items. A backyard compost pile can also be established at the edge of the lawn but not within a wetland area.

Existing trash in wetland areas can be removed by individual homeowners or HOAs. While it may not be feasible to remove 100 years of large-scale dumping, small dumps and trash piles can be cleaned up. Glass, metal, and plastic can be taken to recycling centers or scrap yards. HOAs could provide roll-off dumpsters for collection of large amounts of debris, and local homeowners and other volunteers can assist with clean-up efforts.

Wetland Area Improvement

The land area adjacent to wetlands is also important to manage so the wetland can function at its best. The buffer area around wetlands should filter pollutants and sediment, but if natural vegetation is removed and replaced with turf, it cannot prevent. pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers from entering the wetland and seriously threatening the area’s water quality.

Filling, trash dumping, and invasive plant species are also common causes of wetland degradation.

More information on riparian areas can be found at 4-2: Riparian Buffers NC and 4-3: Riparian Buffers Con, and 4-4: Community Riparian and Wetland Guidance

Invasive Plant Control

Invasive plants have become a problem in wetlands as well as other natural habitats. These plants are not native to the area and have been either accidentally or purposefully introduced. Invasive species can be introduced through many different pathways, including escaped garden plants, wind, stormwater (floodwaters are an excellent dispersal mechanism for both native and invasive species), water drained from boats, transported soil and vegetation materials, and many other sources. Soil and debris falling from construction equipment have resulted in many roadsides becoming dominated by invasive species.

Because invasive plants are not native, they have few natural predators and often out-compete native plants. Invasive species become a problem when they monopolize an area and displace native plant species and habitats.

Invasive plant species are a common problem in wetlands, particularly wetlands in urban and suburban areas. Wetlands within developed residential areas are particularly vulnerable to invasive species as these plants usually prefer disturbed habitats. The following resource is an excellent introduction to invasive plant species:

For any control program, the first step is to identify the problem plant species. This resource contains a list of commonly encountered invasive aquatic species: and most states maintain lists of invasive species, such as this list of invasive Ohio plant species included in 4-5: Invasive Species. This link,, is an excellent resource for general information on invasive species and provides multiple links to additional sites.

Once the problem plant species is identified, the area of coverage needs to be determined. With this information, a control program can then be implemented. Common methods of control are mechanical and chemical control. Mechanical control of invasive plants either through pulling, dredging, mowing, or cutting can be effective on small problem areas. A common invasive plant control method is to use chemical herbicides. A variety of herbicides can be used depending on the species to be controlled and the sensitivity of the habitat to be treated. Most herbicides labeled for use near wetlands have a relatively short lifespan, so that there is no long-term contamination of the area.

Sources for Assistance

The following internet links contain a variety of useful information related to wetlands.

This fact sheet contains a variety of best management practices for wetlands. Although oriented toward stormwater, much of the information is applicable to wetlands in general. 4-6: Protecting Natural Wetlands The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website for wetlands contains a variety of useful information, from wetlands functions and values to U.S. laws regarding wetlands. There is also a series of informative fact sheets about wetlands. The National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) has mapped wetlands across the United States using satellite imagery. This website explains the National Wetlands Inventory process and contains maps that can be downloaded for your area. Although not all wetlands are shown on NWI maps, this is an excellent resource. This website contains simple, basic information about wetlands. It is a good resource for children and those seeking a general overview. The Society of Wetland Scientists contains a variety of information regarding wetlands and provides links to other useful sites about wetlands.

Owner/Management Best Management Practices

How to Hire a Consultant/Contractor

If regulated wetlands are located within a project area and impacts to wetlands are unavaoidable, a wetland delineation and permit are required. A wetlands delineation is the identification of wetlands and streams with the marking of the wetland-upland boundary. Once a wetlands delineation is performed, a map with the size and location of the wetlands and streams is produced with a report substantiating the wetland map. This information must be submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or appropriate regulatory authority for approval if the land is proposed to be used. In most cases, a site visit is made and an in-field inspection of the wetland boundary is performed to ensure that it is accurate.

It may be necessary to hire a wetlands professional when there is a need to identify a wetland or it is necessary to use an area that may have wetlands. Filling and impacting wetlands is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and/or the state government. State and local laws may also regulate other activities such as tree clearing, mowing, and disturbances within the wetland and upland buffers surrounding the wetlands. Local, state, and federal officials should be contacted regarding wetlands regulations. If a significant amount of undeveloped land will be disturbed, a wetlands professional can identify wetland areas and coordinate with government entities to ensure wetland regulations are followed. Not all wetlands are obvious to the casual observer as many wetlands are dry for much of the year.

When considering a wetlands professional, don’t be afraid to ask questions, such as:

  • What are your qualifications and what does your work entail?
  • Can you provide us references from similar projects your company has done?
  • What are our options for dealing with this issue(s)?
  • Will you coordinate obtaining all the required permits and approvals?

Obtaining Estimates

Ask for an estimate and get more than one estimate; often there is no charge for this service. You can also consider creating a request for bid that details the work you want to accomplish and then provide this to several companies. This way, they are all bidding on the same work and you will make it easier for you to compare their responses. However, you should not always select the lowest bid. When examining bids to determine which company will provide you the best service, take into account all information such as certifications, credentials, insurance coverage, work description, and cost. And most importantly, get the bid in writing. Reputable wetland professionals will allow the customer time to review the bid and to ask questions.

Contract Specifications

Most companies provide a contract for services, or you can create your own. The contract should cover some general areas with specific details varying based on the type of project. Basic sections in most contracts are definitions, scope of work, liability, insurance requirements, and payment terms.

Monitoring/Inspecting the Work

Like any purchase of goods and services, you want to be sure you get what you asked for and paid for. During the course of the project and after the work is complete, you have the right to inspect the work and ask questions at any time. If you have questions or concerns, free help is also available from state and local agencies. Do not pay any invoice until you are satisfied that the specified work has been completed properly.

Qualifications and Industry Standards

The Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) at maintains a list of certified wetlands professionals. Although there is no official certification required to become a wetlands professional, the Professional Wetland Scientist program administered by SWS is nationally recognized. A list of Professional Wetland Scientists is available for each state. State and federal wetland regulatory officials can also be contacted for a list of wetlands professionals serving the area. Wetland science is a specialized profession.

Understanding Federal, State, and Local Laws and Ordinances

Non-isolated wetlands are protected under federal law. Non-isolated wetlands are those wetlands that are hydrologically connected to other surface waters such as streams and lakes. Isolated wetlands do not have a hydrological connection to other surface waters and are in most cases protected by state laws.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is primarily responsible for enforcing wetlands regulations. If an impact to a non-isolated wetland is necessary, USACE will issue a permit. This process involves first completing a wetlands delineation, then applying for a wetland impact permit. Federal wetlands permitting can be a long, complex, and expensive process. This fact sheet contains more detailed information regarding federal wetlands laws 4-7: Wetland Regulatory Authority

For regulatory purposes under the Clean Water Act, the term wetlands means“those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs and similar areas.”

Wetland permits are commonly obtained for small impacts resulting from road construction and utility line installation when a residential subdivision is built. It is unlikely that an individual home owner or HOA would find it necessary to obtain a federal wetland permit. If a situation arises where this may be necessary, the local office of the USACE should be contacted for guidance or a wetland professional can be contacted. The local offices of the USACE are divided by watershed area. This website contains a map of the United States showing local USACE Each USACE district has its own webpage with plenty of information regarding federal wetlands regulations. If you find it necessary to obtain a federal wetland permit, it is recommended that you contact a wetland professional to perform the wetland delineation and help you negotiate the permitting process.

State and local wetland regulations vary widely. Many states have wetland regulatory programs for isolated wetlands. Local wetland regulations most often involve building setbacks from wetlands. Wetland setbacks are most likely to affect individual homeowners and HOAs. It may be necessary to perform a wetland delineation in areas where wetlands are known or suspected to occur to determine the wetland boundary and the corresponding setback. Some areas of the United States have wetland mapping available to varying degrees of accuracy; however, these maps are normally not accurate enough to determine the exact wetland boundary on an individual site. Field truthing, or verification, is necessary to fully identify and locate all water resources on a site.

Using Volunteers

Volunteers are an excellent resource for wetland clean-ups and invasive species removal. River and stream clean-up days have become popular in recent years. The same concept could be used for wetland clean-ups. Such an event could be organized by the HOA with the residents as volunteers. For large-scale wetland clean-ups, the HOA could provide dumpsters for trash disposal. Such events are best held during the winter and early spring when the leaves are off the trees and it is easier to move through the wetlands and surrounding areas.

Volunteers are often used for removal of invasive plant species. These events occur during the optimal time for removing the targeted species. Volunteers can be used to manually remove invasive plants or to spray herbicide (under direction of a licensed applicator). Since just a few species are usually targeted at a time, it is relatively easy to educate volunteers on species identification.

Volunteers can also plant native shrubs, flowering perennials, and water-loving plants, create trails to and around wetlands, and erect wildlife observation decks. Protecting and enhancing wetlands is very popular, and the HOA may find additional sources of volunteer expertise and labor through local conservation groups, scout troops, and other community organizations.

Homeowner Education

Homeowner education on the value of wetlands is very important. Many homeowners living adjacent to wetlands are not aware of their presence. The HOA is the logical entity for homeowner education regarding wetlands.

Homeowners first need to become aware that wetlands are in the vicinity of their property. This is often difficult unless a recent wetland delineation exists for the area. Residential subdivisions constructed in recent years will often have a wetland delineation conducted before the subdivision was built. This information should be obtained from the original developer if available. If this information exists but is unavailable, USACE or state and local officials may have copies of the original wetland delineation. Although the wetland delineation may be old, it is the most accurate resource for identification of wetlands. If many wetlands and/or high quality wetlands exist within areas under control of the HOA and no wetland delineation exists, a wetlands professional could be contracted to conduct a wetland delineation.

If a wetland delineation does not exist for the area in question, soil types are another resource that can be used to identify areas that are likely to contain wetlands. Hydric soils that have characteristics caused by ponded water or saturation. Although not all hydric soils contain wetlands, the presence of hydric soils is a strong indicator that wetlands are present. The local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) should be contacted for help in identifying hydric soils. Your local office can be found here The local NRCS office will also have the National Wetland Inventory (NWI) maps for your area and possibly other wetland mapping resources. NWI maps show wetlands based on satellite imagery. These maps are often old and often show only a small percentage of the actual wetlands that exist.

Once known or potential wetlands have been identified, individual homeowners adjacent to these areas should be educated about wetlands value and protection. Ideally, a map of the subdivision and areas under control of the HOA would be created so each homeowner would know the location of wetlands in relation to their property.

An informational pamphlet could be created that contains a map along with best management practices, such as limiting or choosing non-damaging lawn chemicals and disposing of pet waste and lawn debris properly.

Sources for Assistance

The resources identified previously can be used for assistance. The local office of the USACE is the best place to start. USACE staff can answer questions regarding wetlands permitting for your specific area, can tell you if your state has wetlands regulations, and provide contact information. Your state environmental protection agency should also have wetlands information that is specific to your state, and this agency is likely charged with enforcing any state wetland regulations. Finally, county and municipal officials should be contacted for information regarding any local wetland regulations or wetland mapping that may exist for your area. Your county NRCS office will also be able to provide information regarding wetlands including information on soils, wetlands mapping, and wetlands best management practices.


4-1: Functions and Values of Wetlands
4-2: Riparian Buffers NC
4-3: Riparian Buffers Con
4-4: Community Riparian and Wetland Guidance
4-5: Invasive Plants
4-6: Protecting Natural Wetlands
4-7: Wetland Regulatory Authority

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