Wetlands - Frequently Asked Questions
What is a wetland?
The federal Clean Water Act, defines wetlands as: Those 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.
Wetlands have all three of the following:
- The presence of water at or near the surface.
- A majority of plant species adapted to wet conditions.
- Hydric soil types that have developed due to groundwater.
How many acres of wetlands are in Anchorage?
Approximately 14,559 acres of freshwater wetlands have been mapped throughout the entire Municipality (excluding military lands). The following is a subarea breakdown of wetland acres in Anchorage:
Anchorage Bowl = 7,269 acres
Eklutna to Eagle River = 3,308 acres
Turnagain Arm = 716 acres
What wetland types are found in Anchorage?
There are numerous wetland classifications, but for land use and permitting purposes there are two major types: freshwater and intertidal or saltwater. Several general types are found within the freshwater wetland systems in Anchorage, including:
- Riparian (streamside) Wetlands are found along the floodplains of Anchorage's stream systems and larger drainageways. These areas are occasionally flooded and often contain old sloughs and feeder springs. The substrate is usually mineral soils. An example is the wet woods along the Campbell Creek Greenbelt.
- Forested Bogs include areas dominated by closed black spruce woods, alders and various wetland-adapted understory species and mosses. These areas are typically uneven and hummocky and are underlain with peat or organic soils. Black spruce woods are found around the airport and Connors Bog.
- Open Shrub Bogs are sites that lack forest cover and appears as meadows with scattered short trees (<15') and often dense shrubs. Saturated deep peat or organic soils underlie these open bogs and surface water is usually evident at least in the spring. The open areas of Klatt and Connors Bogs are good examples.
- Open Water/Emergent Marshes encompass wide open fresh water ponds and lakes and are dominated by grasses, sedges and other aquatic plant species. Drier sections may appear in summer. Potter Marsh is the best example.
- Intertidal Saltwater Marsh is the type of wetland that fringes the inlet edge of most of the Anchorage Bowl.
Why are wetlands important?
Wetland areas are known to provide a variety of significant natural functions from breeding, feeding and overwinter grounds for fish and wildlife to flood control and water quality and recreation uses. In Anchorage, most wetland sites provide some flood storage function, especially sites located in headwater areas and along stream corridors. Riparian and open marsh wetlands provide highly productive complete ecosystems that support a large percentage of the area's fish and wildlife species. Many Anchorage wetlands are vital in spring and fall to populations of migratory birds. These wetlands also actively purify groundwater and stream flows through the uptake of nutrients and pollutants and by settling sediments from developed area runoff.
How are wetlands regulated?
There are numerous federal laws and regulations that control activities in wetlands. Most important of these is the Clean Water Act of 1977 (including new amendments) which is a component of the federal Water Pollution Control Act. The Clean Water Act is administered and enforced by both the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires that permits be obtained from the Corps of Engineers for the discharge into or dredging of fill materials from wetlands. Placement of fill in all Anchorage wetlands requires some type of Corps of Engineers permit.
What are the different types of wetlands permits?
The Corps of Engineers has three types of wetlands permits identified as:
- Nationwide Permits are pre-authorizations for certain types of discharge of dredged or fill materials into certain wetland situations. These are generally minor fill quantities that are assumed to have minimal impacts. Depending on the Nationwide Permit used, it takes one to four weeks to obtain. Several Nationwide Permits require only notification to the Corps and can be used immediately without review.
- Individual Permits are the most common permit issued by the Corps on a case by case basis and can occur only after a public notice and Corps environmental evaluation has been done. The Corps is required to solicit and incorporate comments from the State and federal resource agencies in the public notice period. Individual Permits usually take 60-90 days for issuance.
- General Permits may be issued by the Corps for a category of fill projects that are similar in nature and cumulatively cause minimal adverse environmental impact. The Corps may issue a General Permit after an evaluation of the proposed category of uses determines that the impacts are minimal and in the public interest. The Corps of Engineers has issued five (5) General Permits for fill activities in the Municipality of Anchorage. These permits only apply to sites wetlands that have been designated "C" in the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan.
What is the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan?
As Anchorage developed and land became scarcer, more pressure has been placed on wetland areas for future community expansion. In anticipating future land use and regulatory conflicts, the Municipality adopted the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan in 1982. This land use plan identified all of Anchorage's freshwater wetlands and included management strategies and permitting requirements for each site. Intertidal wetlands were not included since these areas had already been addressed in the Anchorage Coastal Management Plan (1980).
After more than ten years of use and application of the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan, the Planning Department undertook a 10-year revision process. The revised plan was adopted in April 1996 and differs from the original plan in several ways. All wetlands were revisited, reevaluated, and given a new designation of "A," "B," or "C." These designations correspond roughly to the original designations of Preservation, Conservation, or Developable and are based on high, medium, and low values.
2014 Update: The Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan underwent a revision. Planning staff, working with other municipal departments and state and federal agencies, have evaluated newly mapped wetlands and updated management strategies for those and other previously designated wetlands.
What kinds of development can be done in A, B, & C wetlands?
"A" Wetlands (formerly Preservation): These have the highest wetland resource values. They perform at least two, and typically more, significant wetland functions. "A" wetlands are considered most valuable in an undisturbed state, as most uses or activities, especially those requiring fill, negatively impact known wetland functions. "A" wetlands are not to be altered or otherwise disturbed in any manner, except as outlined elsewhere in the Plan's enforceable policies. Any activity that includes placement of fill in "A" wetlands requires an Individual Section 404 Permit from the Corps of Engineers prior to development.
"B" Wetlands (formerly Conservation): Within each "B" site there is typically a mixture of high and lower values and wetland functions and some portion of these areas have a fairly high degree of biological or hydrological functions and site development limitations. They possess some significant resources, but could possibly be marginally developed and/or disturbed. The intent of the "B" designation is to conserve and maintain a site's key functions and values primarily by limiting and minimizing fills and development to less critical zones while retaining higher value areas. Development could be permitted in the less valuable zones of a "B" site, provided avoidance and minimization and best management practices are applied to minimize disturbance and impacts to the higher value non-fill portions. All sites designated "B" in the Plan require an Individual Section 404 Permit from the Corps of Engineers prior to development.
"C" Wetlands (formerly Developable): These are the lowest value wetlands within the Municipality. Some "C" sites may have moderate values for one or more wetland function, but they generally have reduced or minimal functions and/or ecological values. Such sites are suitable for development with only minor alteration and are to be generally managed to reflect the needs for community expansion and infilling. "C" sites are intended to be permitted under General Permit authorization from the Municipality. The development of "C" wetlands in accordance with the Plan's management strategies and enforceable policies should have an insignificant cumulative impact on overall functions and values of Anchorage wetlands.
All sites designated "C" in the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan require a General Permit that is issued by the Planning Department. These General Permits, issued to the Municipality by the Corps, carry both general and site-specific conditions that must be met. If these conditions cannot be met, the applicant must go to the Corps of Engineers to obtain an Individual 404 Permit.
How can I find out if my property is in a wetland?
You can go to the public counter for the Planning Department on the first floor of the Planning and Development Center (view address & map) and request a copy of the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan, which includes a small wetland map. If more detailed information is needed, staff can help you locate your property on a 1'=500' scale map. Each wetland unit is depicted with a color that refers to its wetland designation ("A," "B," "C"). Every numbered wetland has its own site-specific management strategy detailed in Table 2 of the plan. A wetlands map can also be viewed in the Municipality of Anchorage Wetlands Atlas.
How can I develop my wetlands property?
Step 1. It must first be determined if a property has been identified as a wetland by checking the Municipality's wetlands maps. If the parcel is in a wetland, the management strategies in Table 2 of the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan are used guidelines for development. They also outline what permit types are required. NOTE: If a parcel has wetlands, the specific wetlands permit must be obtained prior to the municipal fill and building permits.
Step 2. If the property is designated "C" in the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan, as long as the site-specific design and development conditions of the General Permits and the Wetlands Plan can be met, a General Permit can be obtained from the Planning Department. This permit usually takes 1-3 weeks to issue and costs either $150 for projects under 16,500 sq. ft. or $475 for all others.
Step 3. If a property is designated either "A" or "B," then any fill or development activities requires an Individual Section 404 Permit from the Corps of Engineers. These permits take 50-100 days to process. The more a project configures to the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan management strategies for that site, the faster a permit can be issued.
How can I dispute a wetland boundary?
Actual boundary lines are often difficult to identify on a map and even more so in the field. If you wish to dispute a wetland boundary, or have a detailed boundary identified on site you may either contact the Corps of Engineers or the Planning Department. Staff from either agency will come to the site and do what is called a wetland delineation specific to your site.
How can I change a wetland designation?
The Wetlands Plan designations and/or site-specific management strategies may be amended only under certain circumstances. The plan amendment process is outlined in Chapter 5 of the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan. Basically, amendments will only be reviewed and entertained if new site information becomes available and only after the Anchorage Assembly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of Alaska approve the proposed changes.