FEDERAL WETLAND DEFINITIONS

For more than 20 years, the Federal agencies involved in the regulation and management of wetlands have been refining their wetland definitions and delineation criteria. 3 wetland definitions are currently in use at the Federal level. A fourth definition was drafted in 1995 by a committee of scientists convened by the National Research Council, at the request of Congress, to help resolve the broad issues of wetland definition and delineation.  All 4 of these definitions make reference to 3 factors that are essential to the identification of wetlands: (1) water, (2) plants that live in wet conditions, and (3) soils that are routinely wet or flooded (Murphy and Golet 1998).

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1975

[Wetlands are] those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface water or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and under normal conditions circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas.

Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1979

Wetlands are lands transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water. For purpose of this classification wetlands must have one or more of the following 3 attributes: (1) at least periodically, the land supports predominantly hydrophytes, (2) the substrate is predominately undrained hydric soil, and (3) the substrate is nonsoil and is saturated with water or covered by shallow water at some time during the growing season of each year.

National Food Security Act Manual
U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1988

Wetlands are defined as areas that have a predominance of hydric soils and that are inundated or saturated by surface water or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and under normal conditions do support, a prevalence of hydrophylic vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions, except lands in Alaska identified as having high potential for agricultural development and a predominance of permafrost.

Wetlands: Characteristics and Boundaries
National Research Council, 1995

A wetland is an ecosystem that depends on constant or recurrent, shallow inundation or saturation at or near the surface of the substrate. The minimum essential characteristics of a wetland are recurrent, sustained inundation or saturation at or near the surface and the presence of physical, chemical, and biological features reflective of recurrent, sustained inundation or saturation. Common diagnostic features of wetlands are hydric soils and hydrophytic vegetation. These features will be present except where specific physiochemical, biotic, or anthropogenic factors have removed them or prevented their development.

Vernal Pools and the Federal Wetland Regulatory Program in New England
EPA
Background
Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), first enacted by Congress in 1972 and substantially amended and expanded in 1977, regulates the discharge of dredged or filled material into all waters of the United States, including most wetlands. Dredged or fill material includes soil, gravel, sand, concrete, pavement, wood, tires, stumps, refuse, and other materials discharged into waters or wetlands. Most development, construction, and mechanized land clearing activities occurring in water bodies and wetlands require some form of permit authorization under CWA section 404 program. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the permitting authority and should always be contacted prior to any work in waters or wetlands.

Jurisdiction
The CWA covers all waters of the U.S., including most wetlands, the use of which could affect interstate commerce. Wetlands that have surface water connections to water bodies (e.g., lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, the ocean) are jurisdictional. Wetlands that are adjacent (bordering, contiguous, neighboring) to other waters of the U.S. are jurisdictional. Wetlands and other waters that are isolated-- that is they have no permanent or temporary surface water connections to water bodies or not considered adjacent-- often are jurisdictional because use of these isolated wetlands or waters could affect interstate commerce. In New England, there are few truly isolated wetlands or other waters. Of those that are isolated, even fewer prove non-jurisdictional. Nevertheless, isolated wetlands and waters should be evaluated carefully to determine federal jurisdiction.

Vernal Pools
Vernal pools can be unvegetated depressions filled with water for several months; that is, they are open waters. Vernal pools also can contain hydrophylic vegetation and soils that remain saturated for most of the year; that is, they are wetlands. In New England, most vernal pools are wetlands themselves or are located within a larger complex of wetlands, usually forested swamps. All vernal pools contained within or adjacent to other jurisdictional waters or wetlands are themselves jurisdictional. Isolated vernal pools that are also wetlands usually provide ecological functions (primarily wildlife habitat) that create an interstate commerce connection (e.g., migratory songbirds or water birds, scientific research, used by mammals that are trapped or hunted) making them jurisdictional. Isolated vernal pools that are simple open waters can provide similar ecological functions that create an interstate commerce connection. However, that connection may not be as readily apparent or demonstrable as with pools that are also wetlands and careful field assessment is necessary