Managing Wetlands Permitting for New School Construction

San Marcos Unified School District officials saw opportunity – rather than potential regulatory headaches – when they learned a new elementary school site harbored federally-protected wetlands habitat and endangered thread-leaved brodiaea.

The district developed ambitious plans to preserve the wetlands and to translocate the plants to a 7.6-acre preserve surrounding the school on two sides.

“While we’re excited by the early success of the habitats, we’re equally happy that the mitigation efforts enabled us to break ground on the new school earlier this year,” said Katherine Tanner, San Marcos Unified School District’s executive director of facilities planning and development. “This preserve with its rare plants and wetlands will offer students a unique first-hand environmental educational experience.”

The district enlisted Dudek to prepare an EIR for the site’s jurisdictional wetlands, cultural resources, traffic concerns, and endangered species. Dudek biologists conducted the plant and wildlife surveys and processed all necessary permits over a two-year period.

Obtaining permits became critical as the deadline neared for transplanting the thread-leaved brodiaea while still in their dormant state. School construction would encounter significant delays if permits were not completed in enough time to transfer the plants.

Permits were secured on time, and the next day landscape contractor Habitat Restoration Sciences (HRS), a Dudek subsidiary, was on site to transplant the thread-leaved brodiaea to the preserve. HRS used an innovative “block salvage” method to move the plant’s entire habitat. Heavy equipment removed large blocks of soil eight to 12 inches deep containing the plants. Smaller plant populations were translocated by hand.

“Block salvage significantly increases the chance of successful transplantation because it brings everything the bulbs need to survive with them into their new location,” said Mark Girard, HRS president.

The wetlands mitigation program created and enhanced 1.85 acres of southern willow scrub, mule fat scrub, freshwater marsh and cismontane alkali marsh habitats to compensate for the loss of approximately 0.5 acres of wetlands habitat impacted by the school’s construction.

“Successful installation of the thread-leaved brodiaea and wetlands mitigation programs is only the first step,” said Andy Thomson, a Dudek habitat restoration specialist who coordinated the mitigation programs’ implementation. “Mitigation programs such as these often require an adaptive management approach during the long-term monitoring period to ensure that any issues are effectively addressed.”

The site is in its first year of a seven-year plant maintenance and monitoring program as well as a five-year wetlands maintenance and monitoring program. The school, which is scheduled to open in August 2008, will incorporate a viewing platform for students to experience the surrounding habitats.