The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has recently released a Draft California Eelgrass Mitigation Policy for public review. The Federal Register Notice containing information about the review is online at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-03-09/pdf/2012-5811.pdf, and the public comment period is open through May 8. The policy applies to all projects in the vicinity of eelgrass beds along the California coast and bays.
There are a number of components to the Draft Policy that increase the standards for surveys and mitigation in areas within and adjacent to eelgrass. Some of the more important proposals from the Draft Policy include:
- Increased regulatory extent of eelgrass beds. The Draft Policy defines the extent of NMFS jurisdiction over eelgrass beds as including all vegetated areas of eelgrass plus a buffer of 10 meters (30 feet). Areas that are adjacent to, but are not occupied by eelgrass would in most circumstances be considered part of the bed with the same mitigation requirements for areas occupied by eelgrass.
- Expanded definition of an eelgrass bed. The Draft Policy defines eelgrass beds as any area containing eelgrass. According to the policy, a single eelgrass plant would be defined as a bed. Individuals and small eelgrass patches which may be present one year but are not sustaining populations would be considered equivalent in regulatory status to well-established beds. All of these areas would be subject to the 10-meter buffer assessment and associated mitigation requirements.
- Bathymetric surveys for every project in areas of eelgrass. To comply with the Draft Policy, every project within 10 meters of an eelgrass plant would be required to provide 1-foot contours in the project footprint, area of adjacent eelgrass, and in an area of a reference eelgrass bed outside of the project footprint. This would be true for large scale dredging and marina projects as well as single family dock construction.
- Hydrodynamic surveys for projects that NMFS determine have the potential to affect local currents. Technically complex studies of hydrodynamics would be required for projects that NMFS determine have the potential to affect local currents. Results of those surveys could trigger mitigation requirements as determined by NMFS staff.
- Increased complexity of mitigation determinations. The Draft Policy incorporates a complex mitigation calculation that was developed for wetlands, and includes variables that cannot be objectively determined for eelgrass beds without substantial study efforts.
- Increased monitoring requirements. Increases the monitoring period for mitigation sites to five years (previously 3 years for San Francisco Bay and vicinity). All projects which NMFS determines may have potential indirect impacts to eelgrass would be subject to two years of monitoring following the post-project survey.
- The Policy also encourages development of regional eelgrass management programs such as mitigation banks and regional permitting strategies.