There's nothing remarkable about the land where the city of Rifle plans to build its new $25 million regional water treatment plant this spring.
Sitting on the north side of U.S. Highway 6 east of the city behind a locked gate with a sign identifying its future use, the site is a former gravel pit, surrounded on three sides by hills. Irrigation water meanders over the city-owned property, leading to the growth of 1.2 acres of wetlands vegetation on the 33-acre site.
It's that vegetation that will be destroyed when the bulldozers and trucks start tearing into the ground that will cost the city more than $114,000.
At its March 6 meeting, City Council was told that in order to obtain a 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for disturbance to existing wetlands at the site, the city must purchase a like amount of wetlands credits, along with 0.006 acres of stream mitigation credits, from the Spring Water Ranch in Collbran, said city Utilities Director Dick Deussen.
Spring Water Ranch is an approved mitigation "bank," a form of third-party mitigation, which assumes the responsibility for compensatory mitigation success for a 404 permittee, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.
Every 404 permittee is required to mitigate the loss of wetlands in some manner, and Rifle officials were aware of the requirement. City funds to pay the mitigation costs are available from the water capital budget of $355,000, Deussen noted.
"It was a pretty time consuming process," Deussen said Tuesday during a site visit. "I believe this is the first time Rifle has had to get a 404 permit."
City Council approved the expenditure by a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Rich Carter absent.
Save money by spending it
Purchasing credits is considered to be more economical than on-site mitigation requiring replanting of native plants and maintaining them over a long period of time, including Corps of Engineers inspections, Deussen wrote in a memo to the council.
City Manager John Hier said it makes economic sense to purchase the credits.
"If we either rehabilitate or recreate wetlands at a different site, what you usually end up with is a greater size of wetlands and it's more costly," he said. "That's why there are these banks that set aside land for this."
The city hired Environmental Solutions of Rifle to conduct a wetlands delineation, as required by the Corps of Engineers. Owner Steve Dahmer said Tuesday he inventoried the wetlands vegetation at the site a few years ago and found "very common wetlands species."
"It's scrub shrub, grass and grass-like vegetation, along with some arctic rush and inland salt grass," Dahmer recalled. "We see a lot of that in our highly alkaline soils out here."
The scrub shrub species are dominated by coyote willow and cattails are present as well, he added.
Wetlands role in the environment
According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife web site, wetlands are lands affected by water, resulting in unique plants and soils. They may be classic cattail areas with a few feet of standing water, areas with very shallow water, or temporary habitats that only occasionally have standing water. Riparian areas next to streams that are subject to frequent flooding are also considered wetlands.
Wetlands comprise less than two percent of Colorado's landscape, but provide benefits to over 75 percent of the wildlife species in the state, including waterfowl and several declining species, the web site noted.
Since the beginning of major settlement activities, Colorado has lost half of its wetlands. By virtue of their position in the landscape, wetlands perform several functions valuable to wildlife and society, including feeding, resting and rearing habitat, movement corridors, groundwater recharge, flood flow alteration, stream bank stabilization, and sediment and nutrient removal. Other values include open space, education, and economic benefits, such as those from hunting, fishing, and bird watching.