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Hydric Soils Primer

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18, Issue 43

Hydric Soils Primer
By Marc Seelinger

I thought we would revisit some of the more fun aspects of wetland science. This week we are going to talk about soils.

One of the most fundamental and often confusing topics concerning soils are those darn hydric soil indicators. There are just so many of them. Each regional supplement can have different ones and sometimes there are tweaks that are region or sub-region specific.

The most basic concept surrounding hydric soil indicators is that they only apply to hydric soils. Now, this may seem a bit obvious but it is critical to the understanding of how the indicators work. Non-hydric soils do not exhibit any of the listed indicators. However, if an indicator is present, it is a positive test for hydric soils. Once that happens it is not usual to find multiple indicators in the same soil profile. If there are no indicators, the soil is not hydric, and no indicators should have been found. This becomes a bit tricky when dealing with remnant hydric soils. Shadows of indicators might be present. However, the soil is not actively hydric. The lack of hydrology indicators may help to confirm this.

The next topic is, “what is it we are looking for?” The hydric soil indicators are based on how three groups of elements respond to the presence of water. It is not just the presence of water, but the anaerobic environment the water creates. These element groups are:

Iron and Manganese

The easiest one to spot is sulfur. The soil stinks like rotten eggs. If you have stinky soil you meet one of the hydric soil criteria. Be careful to not misdiagnose the smell. There are lots of stinky things out there. Make sure what you are smelling is hydrogen sulfide.

Iron and manganese are also fairly easy to spot. There is a distinct color change from orange-red to grey in the case of reduced iron. The anaerobic environment chemically changes the color of the soil. Manganese tends to turn black in this wet environment. However, the problem with these is that the color change back to the brighter colors in an aerobic environment may not happen quickly or at all in some cases. Consequently, you need to make sure that you have an active reducing environment by cross-checking your hydrology indicators.

Carbon is perhaps the trickiest. A simple explanation is that a significant amount of organic material (a.k.a. carbon) is present due to the lack of oxygen in the environment. The soil microbes are not able to break the organic material down because they need oxygen to do this. The more the soil is subjected to anaerobic conditions the thicker the layer of undigested carbon becomes. The more organic matter, the more likely the soil will be hydric. It probably stinks too.

To help organize all of the indicators the Corps uses USDA texture classes. Each indicator is grouped based upon its dominant texture. These include sand, loam, and no specific texture.

Sand is the easiest. The texture is sandy like beach sand. All of the indicators have this in common. The funny thing about this one is that the presence of organic matter is a big part of the “S” indicators.

Loam is denoted by the letter “F.” It stands for fine sand or finer. This includes silts and clays. Most of the indicators in the F category are related to iron and manganese color changes.

“All soils” is the last category and is listed as not specific to any one texture type. Many of the poorly-drained organic soil types fall into this category. However, stinky soil also is an “A” indicator. These “all soils” indicators all sort of fall into the category of “other” but with a strong emphasis on organic soils.

One last thought on this soil overview. The thickness of the feature is a new concept. Many of the indicators have thickness requirements. A given soil feature must be a specified thickness in order to count. It may also have to occur at a specified depth, otherwise, the feature does not count. Oh, and by the way, you sometimes can combine features if present, to meet these thickness thresholds.

Have a great week!

– Marc

Posted on

How significant does a nexus have to be?

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18, Issue 42

How significant does a nexus have to be?
By Marc Seelinger

The issue of what is and is not a significant nexus is center to the new EPA Clean Water Act (CWA) rules. In order for a wetland or other water body to be jurisdictional under the Act, it must have this connection to a navigable waterway. The problem is what is a significant nexus?

This whole issue arose as a result of the Rapanos and Carabell Supreme Court case in 2006. Justice Kennedy coined the term “Significant Nexus” in his lone opinion. It paralleled the plurality’s two-part test involving the receiving waters that have a relatively permanent flow and whether those waters have a continuous surface connection to navigable-in-fact waters. However, he went a step beyond the physical connection and introduced a water quality connection.

One other factor is that the plurality Justices did not feel that dredge or fill material normally washes downstream. Both Justice Kennedy and Justice Stevens in his dissent made it clear that this assertion simply is untrue. Justice Kennedy stated that the discharge of dredged and fill material should be treated the same as the discharge of any other pollutant under the Clean Water Act. Justice Kennedy further stated that the intent of the CWA is to maintain wetlands that provide filtering and other attributes to benefit adjacent bodies of water.

So the problem remains. What is a significant nexus?

There are two types of waters we need to assess. The first one is easy. Simply ask the question, is there a physical connection to a downstream navigable waterway? If the answer is yes, it is jurisdictional.

Now there are many ways a wetland could be connected. But for this analysis, we are more or less limited to surface and shallow subsurface connections of a foot or less. This has been the general rule of thumb since about 2007.

With the new EPA rules, there is discussion on unidirectional and bidirectional flow patterns. This further demonstrates the connection to the navigable waterway. What is new is the introduction of non-wetland areas that have bi-directional water patterns and connections to downstream navigable waters. By default, these areas are connected and therefore jurisdictional. Floodplains are an example of this. By the way, this is new.

The remaining waters are either adjacent wetlands that do not have obvious physical connections. These may also be isolated wetlands. Adjacent wetlands by rule are jurisdictional. Isolated wetlands need to have a significant nexus.

So what is a significant nexus?

If there is no physical connection, you are asked to assess the chemical and biological connectivity to the downstream waters. This was the subject of the recent EPA “Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters”, report that described in great detail how all waters are connected to all other waters. I believe you would have to have a project on the moon in order to not satisfy the connectivity of one water to another based upon the EPA report.

However, that only addresses the concept of nexus. The issue is significant. Pardon the pun.

Really the issue is the significance of the connection. If the connection from one water body to another is altered, can you prove and quantify degradation to the water quality?

The biggest problem that was identified with the EPA report is the lack of discernment of the significance of one connection versus another. The entire report’s premise was to reduce the number of case by case studies on projects. The idea was that the water body is connected therefore it is jurisdictional. However, Justice Kennedy used the word significant. That remains undefined. Neither the new rules nor the recent EPA report quantifies what is significant.

So what is significant?

That is left for you to decide. Is there a significant loss of water quality that would result from your project?

There is also the issue of whether this loss of water quality going to affect commerce? It is not just that the water quality is degraded, but rather that there is an interstate or international economic loss as a result. Without this commerce connection, there can be no jurisdiction thanks to Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution.

One last thought. What if you project improves the downstream economy? Would that still be jurisdictional as Justice Kennedy’s Significant Nexus only speaks to degradation of the downstream water? Just asking.

Posted on

Wetlands could be key in revitalizing acid streams

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18, Issue 41

Originally published as “Wetlands could be key in revitalizing acid streams, UT Arlington researchers say.” 2013
Media Contact: Traci Peterson, Office:817-272-9208, Cell:817-521-5494, tpeterso@uta.edu

A team of University of Texas at Arlington biologists working with the U.S. Geological Survey has found that watershed wetlands can serve as a natural source for the improvement of streams polluted by acid rain.

A team of UTA biologists analyzed water samples in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

The group, led by associate professor of biology Sophia Passy, also contends that recent increases in the level of organic matter in surface waters in regions of North America and Europe – also known as “brownification” – holds benefits for aquatic ecosystems.

The research team’s work appeared in the September issue of the journal Global Change Biology.

The team analyzed water samples collected in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, a six million acre region in northeastern New York. The Adirondacks have been adversely affected by atmospheric acid deposition with subsequent acidification of streams, lakes, and soils. Acidification occurs when environments become contaminated with inorganic acids, such as sulfuric and nitric acid, from industrial pollution of the atmosphere.

Inorganic acids from the rain filter through poorly buffered watersheds, releasing toxic aluminum from the soil into the waterways. The overall result is loss of biological diversity, including algae, invertebrates, fish, and amphibians.

“Ecologists and government officials have been looking for ways to reduce acidification and aluminum contamination of surface waters for 40 years. While Clean Air Act regulations have fueled progress, the problem is still not solved,” Passy said. “We hope that future restoration efforts in acid streams will consider the use of wetlands as a natural source of stream health improvement.”

Working during key times of the year for acid deposition, the team collected 637 samples from 192 streams from the Black and Oswegatchie River basins in the Adirondacks. Their results compared biodiversity of diatoms, or algae, with levels of organic and inorganic acids. They found that streams connected to wetlands had higher organic content, which led to lower levels of toxic inorganic aluminum and decreased presence of harmful inorganic acids.

Passy joined the UT Arlington College of Science in 2001. Katrina L. Pound, a doctoral student working in the Passy lab, is the lead author on the study. The other co-author is Gregory B. Lawrence, of the USGS’s New York Water Science Center.

The study authors believe that as streams acidified by acidic deposition pass through wetlands, they become enriched with organic matter, which binds harmful aluminum and limits its negative effects on stream producers. Organic matter also stimulates microbes that process sulfate and nitrate and thus decreases the inorganic acid content.

These helpful organic materials are also present in brownification – a process that some believe is tied to climate change. The newly published paper said that this process might help the recovery of biological communities from industrial acidification.

Many have viewed brownification as a negative environmental development because it is perceived as decreasing water quality for human consumption.

“What we’re saying is that it’s not entirely a bad thing from the perspective of ecosystem health,” Pound said.

The UTA team behind the paper hopes that watershed development, including wetland construction or stream re-channeling to existing wetlands, may become a viable alternative to liming. Liming is now widely used to reduce acidity in streams affected by acid rain but many scientists question its long-term effectiveness.

The new paper is available online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12265/abstract.

Funding for Passy’s work was provided in part by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The Norman Hackerman Advanced Research Program, a project of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, as well as the US Geological Survey, the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation also provided support.

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 33,000 students and more than 2,200 faculty members in the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.