Wetlands get new spy cam

Like a circling hawk spotting field mice, Charles Costello sits at his computer gazing at aerial photos of Massachusetts countryside, swooping in electronically on the bad guys who rip up this state's delicate wetlands.

This is no video game. Certainly not to Mr. Costello, a soft-spoken bureaucrat with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), who hunts environmental scofflaws from a tiny Boston office cluttered with blowups of aerial photographs and technical manuals. Using photo-analysis software of the sort used by the Defense Department to spot enemy tanks, he scans his computer screen for telltale red dots.

The dots signal him to zoom in to see, for example, if a parking lot now sits on former marshland. Such skills have transformed him and his agency into a nemesis to those who illegally bulldoze wetlands. Often, he tracks and catches them by surprise - even years after their dirty deed.

The first state in the nation to use such technology for wetlands enforcement, Massachusetts is blazing a trail that other states - and even national environmental groups - are likely to follow. The system is relatively affordable and far more comprehensive than relying on tips phoned in by citizens. And in the case of Massachusetts, despite deep cuts in the state budget, the new "smoking gun" photographic evidence is allowing it to flex its enforcement muscle - and bring cash into state coffers at the same time.

Massachusetts' advance also comes at a critical moment as political will to protect the nation's wetlands seems at a tipping point. After uncertainty and slippage in enforcement following a 2001 US Supreme Court ruling, observers say, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month affirmed its commitment to enforce the Clean Water Act with respect to certain "isolated" wetlands. Pressure is also rising on state and federal agencies like the EPA to demonstrate their effectiveness in dollars, observers say. Wetlands managers will attend a federal conference in March to discuss new cost-effective techniques for monitoring wetlands and enforcing protection laws.

"This is the kind of enforcement tool we've needed," says Robert Golledge Jr., commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP. "Photographs like these are very clear to a jury - it's easy for them to see what's been done."

Sometimes, the data are shocking. Massachusetts officials were aghast to find that more than 3,000 locations had been filled between 1991 and 2001 - a net loss of more than 700 acres of wetlands that they previously had not known about. At least half of those locations involved illegal actions, officials say. It was a rude awakening for a state that had prided itself on a tough permit system designed for "no net loss" of a single acre of wetlands.

"Many of these places are way back, deep in the woods, where these people think nobody will see," says Cynthia Giles, assistant commissioner of the Massachusetts DEP. "Now they'll know we're out there, and we can find them."

Model for other states

By becoming first in the nation to digitize its aerial maps of the state, then link them to a computer database for wetlands protection, Massachusetts has dramatically raised the level of detection and lowered the costs of enforcement. The DEP's sharp before-and-after photos are more convincing to juries than paper maps, officials say. It's an innovation that has suddenly given wetlands regulators sharper teeth.

On Dec. 10 Costello's efforts paid off when his agency announced fines totaling $280,000 against two companies: an auto parts company and a concrete company, accused of filling three acres of wetlands. More such actions are on the way.

The eye in the sky not only catches past scofflaws, it may slow further losses of wetlands as potential violators realize their chances of being caught are high, says Mr. Golledge of the DEP.

That's a big change. Not long ago getting such evidence was a costly process involving many man hours scanning photographs with little certainty of a conviction or settlement.

Wetlands are already federally protected under the Clean Water Act of 1977, which recognized swamps, bogs, and wet forests for their key ecological roles as wildlife habitats and giant sponges, absorbing pollutants and minimizing flooding by sopping up heavy rains.

And environmentalists cheered the Dec. 16 announcement by EPA head Michael Leavitt that it would drop plans to remove millions of acres of wetlands from federal protection. These so-called "isolated" wetlands had been made legally vulnerable following a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that weakened protections, advocates say.

Loss of wetlands

But enforcement has been a problem ever since the Clean Water Act of 1977 protected inglorious mud flats, eel-grass beds, squishy forest, and other mushy, water-soaked terrain.

Between 1986 and 1997, the lower 48 states have seen a net loss of 644,000 acres of wetlands, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That loss rate slowed to an estimated 58,500 acres annually, the service reported five years ago. But the latter rate may be higher.

Massachusetts' experience is telling, says Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA's civil-enforcement program and now director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. He asks: If that state, with its tough protections, still finds hundreds of acres illegally filled, what might be happening in the two-thirds of states that don't even have wetlands regulations?

The official rate of wetlands loss "is a significant understatement," Mr. Schaeffer says. "What's the real loss rate? We need to know that. This sort of digital database analysis is something the Bush administration should be doing."

Indeed, the larger significance of what Massachusetts has demonstrated may lie ahead. If states, for whatever reason, decide not to protect wetlands, the new technology has made it affordable enough for environmental groups or other nongovernmental organizations to monitor compliance. Only 16 states have their own wetlands protection laws. The others rely on the US Army Corps of Engineers for enforcement.

"It's a great idea," says Tim Serchinger, an attorney with Environmental Defense in Washington. "I've been thinking about this for several years. There's no question this is the way to do wetland enforcement. I'm really impressed they're doing this."

"I can't tell you how excited I am about this," adds Jay Taylor, president of Wetlands Watch, a Virginia environmental group. "Regulation and enforcement have been cut, so we know many acres of wetlands are being destroyed under the table. This approach would level the playing field. It's just the kind of thing an organization like ours could make use of" - especially given its declining costs.

Virginia already has digitized wetlands maps, part of the National Wetlands Inventory conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And those older maps could be compared to newer aerial or satellite photos and contrasted using the high-tech software on nothing more expensive than a robust personal computer, Costello points out.

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