Glenn Barnes is a senior project director at the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina. Glenn is the project manager of the Sustainable Finance for Wetland Programs project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Most government-operated wetland programs in the United States are at the federal, state, and tribal level. Local governments, however, have a strong role to play in wetland programs as well and can be key strategic partners for states and tribes.
The Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) published a guide in 2007 on Protecting and Restoring Wetlands: Strengthening the Role of Local Governments, written by Jon Kusler. Dr. Kusler remarks that local governments make land use and development decisions that impact wetlands. This is particularly true in areas of the country where populations are growing in exurban areas that typically contain large areas of wetlands.
Dr. Kusler also points out that local governments are also already engaged in broader water quality protection efforts such as enhancing watersheds, managing stormwater, and protecting the sources of drinking water. The ASWM report outlines actions that local governments can take to strengthen their wetland restoration and protection efforts as well as ways that federal and state government can better support and strengthen local government wetland programs.
One option offered in the ASWM report is for states to recognize explicitly that local governments “have an important long term role to play in restoring and protecting wetlands.” Some states have done this, such as Montana, which includes partnering with local governments as one of eight key directions in its Strategic Framework for Wetland and Riparian Area Conservation and Restoration.
How, then, can local governments pay for wetland programs? Dr. Kusler suggests that states and the federal government can provide continued and enhanced financial assistance. There are many federal grants available for local wetland programs, especially from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And some states provide funding to local governments, such as in Massachusetts, where local conservation commissions play an important role in wetland permitting.
But local governments have many ways to raise funds on their own. In addition to the basic way that local governments fund most of their services—through taxes—local governments across the country have found interesting and innovative ways to pay for wetland and water quality programs.
For some local governments, protecting wetlands is a stormwater strategy, so local stormwater fees go towards wetland programs. In other cases, protecting wetlands is a way of enhancing the quality of their source water, and they use water and sewer fees for the work.
Other water systems have charged a separate fee to customers specifically for wetland and water quality protection, such as Central Arkansas Water, the Dennis, MA Water District, and the City of Raleigh, NC. Montgomery County, MD charges a similar watershed protection fee on the property tax bill.
Other jurisdictions charge special taxes for wetland and water quality enhancement, such as the special sales tax in Gunnison County, CO, special property tax in Gates Mills, OH, the special real estate transfer tax in Crested Butte, CO, and the special local income tax in Nockamixon Township, PA, to name a few.
Many of these innovative funding mechanisms were approved by ballot initiative, where historically water quality financing initiatives have enjoyed a high degree of success.
Ultimately, well executed partnerships can help state and local governments enhance each other’s wetland program efforts.