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Monitoring and Assessment Strategy

A key aspect of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s nontidal wetlands program is ensuring that there is no net loss of wetland acreage and function through permitted impacts. DEQ and Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) were awarded several grants by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a Wetland Monitoring and Assessment model to assess the current conditions of Virginia’s wetlands. Virginia is one of 3 states nationally to perform this work for EPA.

The overarching goal of the wetland monitoring and assessment strategy is to develop a long-term implementation plan for a wetland monitoring and assessment program that protects the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Commonwealth’s water resources, including wetlands. In order to accomplish this goal, it is critical to first know the status of wetland resources in Virginia, in terms of location and extent of wetlands in each watershed, and have a general knowledge of the quality of these wetland resources. Secondly, the functions of wetland resources impacted through our permitting program must be accurately evaluated to determine those functions to be replaced through compensatory mitigation. It is also important to assess the degree to which the required compensatory mitigation is performing in relation to those impacted functions.

The hierarchical nature of Virginia’s wetland monitoring and assessment strategy allows for both general reporting on status and trends, as well as providing for more intense analysis of select watersheds for assessment of cumulative impacts to wetland condition and water quality. This assessment approach will generate data that will be used to conduct biannual reporting on status and trends of wetlands as part of Virginia's Integrated 305(b)/303(d) report, and to evaluate the effectiveness of regulatory and voluntary programs in meeting Virginia's mandate of no net loss of wetland resources through regulatory programs, and a net resource gain through voluntary programs. Further, our interactive database and Wetland Quality Status and Trends Report will provide the general public, resource agencies, land use planning entities, and conservation groups with general information on the health and condition of the Commonwealth’s wetland resources.

The following questions will be used to guide the performance measures for the wetland monitoring program's objectives:

  • What is the overall quality of wetlands in Virginia?
  • To what extent is wetland quality changing over time?
  • What are the wetland problem areas and areas needing protection?
  • What level of wetland protection is needed?
  • How effective are wetland programs in protecting the resource?

DEQ expects that this strategy can be accomplished within a ten-year time frame. The Wetland Strategy was updated in 2016.

Virginia's Updated Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (2016)
Appendix A - Milestones
Appendix B - Future Action Items

Wetland Condition Assessment Tool (WetCAT)

DEQ’s Office of Wetland and Stream Protection (OWSP), in collaboration with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), has developed a wetland monitoring and assessment protocol to provide an ongoing assessment of the status of the Commonwealth’s wetland resources and the success of both wetland regulatory and voluntary programs.

The assessment protocol consists of a three-tiered approach using comprehensive coverage of all mapped non-tidal wetlands to achieve a GIS based analysis of remotely sensed information (Level I). Level I scores wetland types based on the habitat and water quality stressors associated with surrounding land use types. Levels II and III are intended to calibrate and validate the model that is used for Level I analysis. By having a statistically-validated tool that measures wetland quality as a function of habitat and water quality parameters, DEQ permit staff will be able to make better permit decisions. Further, DEQ will also be able to measure how well we are protecting the function of our more vulnerable wetlands (i.e. isolated wetlands), by comparing the condition of wetland habitat and water quality parameters, as a function of the assessment scoring over time. The data collected from the assessment has been compiled into an online GIS-based wetland data viewer identified as the Wetland Condition Assessment Tool (WetCAT). One unique aspect of WetCAT is its online interactive user interface, which allows users to overlay data such as previously permitted impacts and impaired waters and run various geoprocessing tools to visualize cumulative impacts, downstream flow, and upgradient drainage areas.

The goal of WetCAT is to support DEQ’s regulatory decision-making, allow reporting of wetland condition, and provide information for policy development. In particular, information derived from monitoring will be used to:

  1. Report ambient wetland conditions in Virginia's Clean Water Act (CWA) Integrated 305(b)/303(d) report;
  2. Evaluate wetland impacts from proposed projects within a watershed context during permit review as part of Virginia's regulatory program;
  3. Evaluate the performance of wetland restoration and other compensatory wetland mitigation in replacing wetland acreage and function, including changes in wetland condition over time based upon surrounding landscape changes and maturity of the mitigation site; and
  4. Evaluate the cumulative impacts of wetland loss and restoration in watersheds relative to ambient ecological conditions and water quality management needs.

One of the advantages of the Virginia protocol is a comprehensive assessment of secondary impacts to wetland resources arising from activities that do not directly impact wetlands. This information can guide policy discussions on general land use management, stormwater, and land use planning. Linking decisions in these areas to wetland policy will be essential to achieving Virginia’s statutory requirement of no net loss of wetland acreage and function, and aid local governments with planning tools at a watershed level. Additional data sets and GIS layers will allow Virginia to continue to develop a wetland data viewer for use by regulatory agencies and the general public. Our success will be measured by an increasing trend in the statistically-reliable Level I protocol and a decreasing trend in cumulative wetland impacts over time.

WetCAT was recognized by the Environmental Council of States (ECOS) as an outstanding state initiative that can serve as a model for other states.

Click on the WetCAT link to access the website tool. Note: The tool can only function in Chrome and Firefox Internet browsers. It will not work properly in Internet Explorer. WetCAT has been published in the Wetland and Stream Rapid Assessment Book textbook, chapter 2.2.8, in 2018 (Havens et al., Virginia Wetland Condition Assessment Tool [WetCAT]: A Model for Management, 2018).

Development of a Wetland Program Plan

The Commonwealth of Virginia continues to make significant progress in the development of a comprehensive nontidal wetland regulatory program; refinement of our permitting/compliance database to track impacts, compliance, and compensation by watershed; and continued refinement of our wetland monitoring and assessment tools for use in management decision-making and integration within our water quality programs.

Virginia continues to develop the regulatory and non-regulatory components of its nontidal wetlands program. Strategies have already been developed for many of the action items in EPA’s Core Elements framework, and some of these strategies are being implemented. This grant work specifically addresses both wetlands within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and headwater aquatic resources.

Virginia's non-tidal wetland program addresses wetlands across all geomorphic provinces in the state, and specifically ensures regulatory coverage of headwater and isolated wetlands, which are a significant proportion of the state's inventory. In Virginia, there are approximately 800,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands, and over 100,000 acres of these are considered isolated. Approximately 650,000 acres of non-tidal wetlands occur in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This project was specifically intended to develop and strengthen the Commonwealths capacity to meet the no net loss/net resource gain goal.

The Virginia DEQ's Office of Wetlands and Stream Protection (OWSP), in partnership with the Center of Coastal Resources Management (CCRM) at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), developed a Wetland Program Comprehensive Plan that documents the goals and activities of Virginia's tidal and nontidal wetland programs, and identifies opportunities for future program enhancements. A comprehensive plan to address the achievement of no-net-loss and net wetlands gain should include the following core elements, as defined by EPA:

  • Monitoring and Assessment
  • Regulation
  • Voluntary Restoration, and
  • Water Quality Standards for Wetlands

This plan summarizes efforts on the core elements, and includes other elements identified as critical to Virginia wetlands.

Floristic Quality Assessment Index (FQAI)

As part of the scope of work for the Wetland Monitoring and Assessment grant, DEQ worked with botanical experts and wetland scientists from various regions of Virginia to develop a Floristic Quality Assessment Index (FQAI) to be used as a qualitative indicator of a wetland’s relative condition. The FQAI has been shown in other states to be a reliable means of assessing wetland quality with minimal data collection. Development of a FQAI specific to Virginia involves determining Coefficient of Conservatism values (C-values) for vascular plants frequently encountered in tidal and nontidal wetlands in Virginia. The assignment of C-values is the first phase of developing a FQAI to help assess relative wetland function and quality as part of DEQ's on-going wetland monitoring and assessment efforts.

Using the Calculator  (Calculator unavailable - Currently Under Revision)

Enter the plants you have found by genus and species using the FQAI Calculator’s drop down boxes. (Note: Upon selecting another genus your previous entry will be alphabetized in the list.) The calculator will perform the computation to determine the Floristic Quality Assessment Index as defined by a committee of expert botanists and wetland scientists. A committee of four (4) botanical experts (chaired by VDEQ staff) determined, through consensus, a coefficient of conservatism (C) for each plant species on the list. The C-value will range from 0 (most likely to occur in disturbed landscapes or a non-native species) to 10 (most likely to occur in undisturbed landscapes). Intermediate integers will be assigned based upon the species tolerance to disturbance.

Survey Notes

It is recommended that your survey area be at least 100 meters square for the most valid results, and it is important to identify every plant in that area. The season in which you perform your survey may affect your results, so it would be interesting to revisit the same sites in different seasons. Mid-July is recommended for wetland and riparian sites as sedge and grass identification to species is important .

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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000

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