The Oregon Department of State Lands is developing a statewide wetlands inventory map using multiple sources of information to show where wetlands are located.
It’s a significant issue for farmers, who must obtain fill-removal permits from DSL before starting major ground-disturbing projects within wetlands. That can be expensive, particularly if you find out after the fact that you have a problem.
The goal is to show property owners where the agency has authority so they don’t unintentionally break the law.
At first blush it’s hard to argue with that. As we said, it could be an expensive mistake.
But we can understand why not everyone is seeing this as a gift.
There are a lot of farmers who have operated for years under the assumption their land wasn’t a wetlands, in many cases because the available county and federal inventories are incomplete. If a parcel is on the list it’s a wetland, but if it’s not it still could be.
That’s what Jesse Bounds found out.
After a fire destroyed two barns, his machinery and $500,000 worth of straw in 2016, he obtained the necessary county permits to rebuild.
Then a neighbor complained to DSL. It discovered 12 acres that had been farmed for years was actually a wetlands — a wetlands that didn’t appear on the State Wetland Inventory and had gone unnoticed. A permit to mitigate the damage to the wetlands would cost $57,000 per acre, a $684,000 unexpected bill.
A lot of people don’t think it’s fair that one government agency — the county building department, for example — using the best available source can clear a property for building, then DSL can come along and declare it a wetlands.
So, the department is trying to update the inventory. In the process, some places now not known by the owner and the county will be declared a wetland and open to increased regulation.
Some legislators say that’s an expansion of the department’s authority.
The department says it’s not. Wetlands, whether known or as yet undiscovered, are subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act.
But what makes a property a wetlands? It has less to do with actually being wet than meeting three factors. Wetlands must include hydric soils, wetland vegetation and wetland hydrology.
Some wetlands are easily observable, others are not.
Hydric soils, which are common in the Willamette Valley will, serve as a “wide net” for analyzing lands, but the agency will rely on the area’s current hydrology and other technical factors to decide whether it’s currently a wetland.
The Oregon Farm Bureau and others worry that once DSL determines a property is a wetlands it will remain so until its owner can prove otherwise. That’s an expensive proposition. But, so is getting a permit if work must be done.
Legislators say they want to keep a close eye on the mapping program to ensure DSL stays within its statutory limits.
There’s no better use of the legislative oversight authority.