Managing Long-Term Native Habitat Mitigation

Two trends are impacting long-term native habitat mitigation projects in California: (1) regulatory agency compliance checks have become more frequent, and (2) depleted municipal budgets have seriously curtailed spending on effective project oversight.

The following tips for avoiding unnecessary costs due to regulatory violations, extended maintenance, or remedial repair work are offered by the habitat restoration staff at Dudek and the native habitat landscape contract specialists at Habitat Restoration Sciences, Inc. (HRS):

Annual Reporting Isn’t Enough Mitigation permits require a year-end status report documenting results and recommending necessary repair work, so project owners often catch problems at year-end. To eliminate negative surprises at year-end, it pays to have written observation reports from site walk-throughs done monthly during the project’s early stages, switching to quarterly reports as the project matures. “Site observation reports are most useful when they include proactive alternatives to correct problems before they get out of hand,” said John Minchin, a Dudek licensed landscape architect specializing in habitat restoration.

Stay Alert For Natural Site Changes Environmental conditions can change during long-term mitigation projects (e.g., freshwater wetland areas transforming to more salty soil conditions, which results in the growth of alkali marsh vegetation). When such changes occur, new site conditions must be documented, and new recommendations must be made to regulatory agencies for review and approval. Getting these regulatory approvals at the end of a program can be a major issue and delay sign-off.

Proper Hydrology is Often Overlooked Regulatory agencies, particularly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, review a proposed wetland’s hydrological supporting data to ensure that the site will support long-term wetland vegetation survival. Proving the appropriate groundwater and surface water conditions exist for a restored wetland area is a key factor that is sometimes overlooked in the initial design. Recently, the Dudek team was tasked with finishing a failing restoration site that required remedial grading and replanting. The initial grading design placed the vegetation at too high an elevation relative to the water source, causing the desired wetland vegetation to wither and die unless provided expensive supplemental irrigation. “Getting elevations and intended drainage patterns correct in the beginning is critical to creating a self-sustaining wetlands,” added Minchin.

Is Maintenance Staff Trained in Native Habitat Plant Identification? There is a difference between staff trained in native habitat landscape maintenance as opposed to ornamental landscape maintenance. The most common error ornamental landscape maintenance crews make is to pull out native species, mistaking them for weeds, while leaving non-native (exotic) plants and weeds. “Acacia trees are a good example of an escaped exotic plant that can invade these areas,” said Mark Girard, Habitat Restoration Sciences (HRS) president. “Acacia trees are popular in ornamental landscapes, so we often see failing sites where acacias are left, crowding and displacing desired native plant growth.” A maintenance staff trained in native habitat vegetation will avoid costly remedial planting and maintenance.

Evaluate Design-Build Options Design-build habitat mitigation projects often lower upfront design costs while providing the client and contractor with more flexibility during installation and ongoing maintenance. “Design-build alleviates a lot of headaches that come with monitoring and maintenance,” Minchin said, “and is particularly efficient for municipalities with projects that must be fast-tracked or for remedial repair projects that already have permit authorizations in place.”

Cost-effective, long-term mitigation project generally requires the following:

  • A project designed correctly in the beginning
  • Accurate and relevant hydrological details
  • Proactive documenting and reporting natural site condition changes to regulatory agencies so that adaptive management modifications are made progressively, rather than at the end
  • Awareness that remote and/or isolated mitigation sites are not “out-of-sight and out-of-mind” of regulatory/permitting agencies; a remote location is not a reason to pay less attention to regulatory compliance.