Wetlands in Virginia

Technically, wetlands are "areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water 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.""1 Wetlands do not have to have standing water 12 months of the year, but soils and plants must reflect the frequently-high water table.

wetland at mouth of Neabsco Creek, at Leesylvania State Park
wetland at mouth of Neabsco Creek, at Leesylvania State Park

wetlands at mouth of Pohick Creek and Accotink Creek
wetlands at mouth of Pohick Creek and Accotink Creek
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service National wetlands Inventory, wetlands Mapper

Virginia wetland statistics (calculated at the end of the 1970's):2
1 million acres of wetlands of all types
72% are palustrine vegetated wetlands ("palustrine" wetlands are located in fields/forests and on the edge of streams - but not adjacent to large lakes or on the edge of tidal waters)
23% are estuarine wetlands ("estuarine" wetlands are associated with tidal waters, east of the Fall Line)
72% of all wetlands are located in the Coastal Plain
22% of all wetlands are located in the Piedmont
6% of all wetlands are in the other physiographic provinces

Wetlands are now a valued ecological resource in Virginia - but in the 400 years of settlement after Jamestown, 42% of the natural wetlands were drained or filled for agriculture, industrial facilities, roads/ports, and urban/suburban development. In particular, estuarine and palustrine vegetated wetlands were lost. At the same time, new natural beaver bonds and artificial construction of farm ponds and reservoirs created an increase in open water areas.3

Today, government policy is to ensure "no net loss" of wetlands, ideally by avoiding alteration of a natural wetland. As described by the Environmental Protection Agency, "Far from being useless, disease-ridden places, wetlands provide values that no other ecosystem can, including natural water quality improvement, flood protection, shoreline erosion control, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation, and natural products for our use at no cost."4

Projects that destroy even tiny wetland areas are required to mitigate the loss by creation of artificial wetlands of an equivalent type. Destruction of a forested wetland requires two acres of new forested wetland for every acre destroyed, while destruction of a scrub-shrub wetland must be mitigated by a 1.5-to-1 ratio.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issues Virginia Water Protection Permits for non-tidal wetlands, and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) manages changes to tidal wetlands. The Federal government authority to regulate wetlands is based on Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, processed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Section 404 requires a permit before dredged or fill material may be discharged into waters of the United States.

wetland locations
wetlands locations
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, MidAtlantic Wetlands: A Disappearing Natural Treasure

According to the state summary of the National Water Summary on Wetland Resources (U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2425):

Virginia has about 1 million acres of wetlands; one-quarter are tidal and three-quarters are nontidal. Forested wetlands (swamps) are the most common wetlands in the State. Both shores of the Chesapeake Bay have extensive estuarine wetlands. Conversion to nonwetland uses (agricultural, urban, industrial, and recreational), channelization and ditching, and other causes have resulted in the loss of about 42 percent of Virginia's wetlands since the 1780's. Development in wetlands is regulated in part by means of the Virginia Water Protection Permit. Local governments may adopt prescribed zoning ordinances and form citizen wetland boards to regulate their own tidal wetlands; the State retains an oversight and appellate role.

estuarine wetlands on eastern side of Eastern Shore
estuarine wetlands on eastern side of Eastern Shore
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service National wetlands Inventory, wetlands Mapper

Virginia still has 144 named swamps, but has lost over 40% of its wetlands since the 1780's. The "lost" acres have been converted into upland (filled in with dirt and other materials) or open water (through dredging or erosion).

The Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for dredging and filling wetlands. These permits are required by Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (Public Law 95-217). A list of public notices being considered by the Norfolk District will almost always include a few announcements about 404 permit applications in Virginia.

The Federal government's claim to authority to control even minor land disturbance is based on the constitutional authority to regulate navigable waterways (including Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act passed in 1899). As described Section 320.2 of the Code of Federal Regulations:

The construction of any structure in or over any navigable water of the United States, the excavating from or depositing of material in such waters, or the accomplishment of any other work affecting the course, location, condition, or capacity of such waters is unlawful unless the work has been recommended by the Chief of Engineers and authorized by the Secretary of the Army.
"Isolated wetlands" that are not directly connected to the navigable waters of the United States (such as a vernal pool in a forested area, away from a stream) are excluded from Federal regulation, but modification of isolated wetlands still requires a state permit from DEQ. Also excluded from Section 404 Federal regulation are many farming/forestry activities.

Mathews County wetlands
Mathews County wetlands
Source: National Wetlands Inventory of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Filling wetlands will change the way water runs off into the navigable streams, such as the James River. The Corps is notorious in some quarters for its philosophy of building structures rather than preserving the natural environment, even when the economic (as well as environmental) costs of a waterway or dam exceed the benefits - but according to the Federal rules of the game, it's the Corps that determines what permits to approve or reject.

There is a key difference between the definitions of "biological" and "jurisdictional" wetlands. Wetland protection became a political issue in the Bush/Quayle administration, with claims that the "no net loss" commitment was a fraud because the definition of wetland was being narrowed to just areas with standing water throughout the year. The Federal agencies, including the Department of Agiculture farming bureaus, the Department of the Interior wildlife conservation bureaus, and the Envirnmental Protection Agency, were unable to adopt one standard manual for mapping wetlands consistently.

It requires professional judgement to determine the exact edge of a wetland. "Delineation" of a wetland boundary is not a cookbook process that any landowner can do. The Corps definition of wetlands recognizes that areas that are dry for much of the year can still be classified as wetlands. The Corps specialists will conduct on-site reviews to determine exactly where the regulations require a permit based on the "vegetation, soil, and hydrology."

So cutting down the cattails to disguise the existence of a wetland won't work. The Corps advises landowners to request consultation if , in the Corps definition, an:

Lake Drummond and Dismal Swamp

Swamps of Virginia



1. Environmental Protection Agency, "Wetland Regulatory Authority," http://water.epa.gov/grants_funding/wetlands/upload/2004_4_30_wetlands_reg_authority_pr.pdf (last checked November 10, 2010)
2.Tiner, R. W., Jr. and J. T. Finn, Status and Recent Trends of Wetlands in Five Mid-Atlantic States: Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 5, National Wetlands Inventory Project, Newton Comer, MA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region III, Philadelphia, PA. Cooperative publication, p.26-27 http://www.fws.gov/wetlands/_documents/gSandT/StateRegionalReports/StatusRecentTrendsWetlandsFiveMidAtlanticStates.pdf (last checked November 10, 2010)
3. Tiner and Finn, p. 7
34. EPA, "America's Wetlands," http://www.epa.gov/OWOW/wetlands/vital/toc.html (last checked November 10, 2010)

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