State’s wetland maps will be updated for the first time in over 25 years
Albany, NY – Landmark legislation introduced by New York State Senator Pete Harckham and Assemblyman Steve Englebright to protect and regulate freshwater wetlands statewide was included in the newly enacted FY2023 State Budget. Now approved, the bill will update the state’s wetland maps for the first time in over 25 years, which will safeguard fragile drinking water supplies while also helping to combat climate change through carbon mitigation in millions of acres.
With the understanding that vital natural resources and fragile ecosystems are at risk, the legislation received bipartisan support initially.
“Too often new commercial and residential development in New York threatens the existence of freshwater wetlands for the simple reason there are no updated maps of these critical environmental resources to ensure their protection,” said Harckham. “Now enacted, the law will guide the proper stewardship of our wetlands and offer safeguards as well. My thanks to Governor Hochul and Assemblyman Englebright for their steadfast support of our wetlands, which will benefit future generations.”
“Because freshwater wetlands transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon rich soil, reduce the effects of frequent flooding, purify water and nurture wildlife, these moist woods and meadows play an outsized role in environmental conservation,” said Englebright. “That is why the revised wetlands protection law that I had the privilege of working on with Senator Harckham and Governor Hochul is such a milestone in our fight against climate change.”
For the past two decades, New York has been entangled in the federal legal debate over what constitutes a wetland and who has the authority to protect them. New Yorkers rely on swamps, fens, bogs and wet meadows to filter pollutants from our waterways, recharge our aquifers, and
absorb catastrophic floods. Yet there often appears to be little public awareness that we are filling, dredging and draining wetlands at an alarming rate—which, too often, leaves our neighborhoods underwater or public water supplies contaminated.
Currently, for a wetland to be subject to regulation under New York State law, it must be delineated on existing freshwater wetlands maps prepared by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) after lengthy public comment. Most of these maps have not been updated in over 20 years, making them woefully incomplete, and the amendment process can be time consuming and overly burdensome in administrative costs.
There are hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in high development areas of New York that are not on official maps but desperately require protection. This legislation will remove the jurisdictional barriers that these maps have created, and allow DEC to immediately protect and regulate wetlands if they meet the basic scientific definition of these critical habitat areas featuring hydrophilic plants and hydric soils.
The DEC estimates that if this reform is enshrined in law, it will be the equivalent of adding one million acres of wetlands under the state’s protection. That number just represents wetlands that are 12.4 acres and larger that have never been officially mapped by the state. Existing state law will also allow DEC to identify and protect smaller wetlands of unusual importance that were once encumbered by the state’s regressive mapping protocol and never officially recognized. The threshold for new mapping is wetlands of at least seven acres large.
The finalized language in the wetlands legislation represents years of working with stakeholders from the development, farming and silviculture sectors toward protecting the environment while also balancing the needs of all New Yorkers. The bill will allow local governments to enact requirements that are more protective. Currently, New York is the only state in the Northeast not to assume regulatory authority over its own wetlands.
Roger Downs, Conservation Director, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, said, “These long awaited and historic wetlands regulatory reforms will make our communities more resilient to increasing floods, droughts and ecological disruption brought on by the climate crisis. State and municipal regulators will now have the tools to identify and enhance the diverse mosaic of wetlands that protects New York’s communities, drinking water and biodiversity. The Sierra Club applauds Senator Harckham's and Assemblyman Englebright's leadership in helping forge this historic agreement for an effective new freshwater wetlands program that will protect our communities moving forward.”
Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), said, “Increasing wetlands protection is critical to conserve natural habitats, protect our communities from flooding, and increase resilience to climate change. The New York League of Conservation Voters applauds Senator Harckham and Assemblyman Englebright for their leadership in securing the biggest expansion of wetlands preservation in a generation with this budget, which will protect an additional one million acres of unique ecosystem.”
Erin McGrath, Policy Manager for Audubon New York, said, “Protecting our wetlands is a huge win for birds and people. Wetlands provide shelter, rest and nourishment for millions of birds and important ecosystem services to New Yorkers across the state—including flood control, climate resiliency, and clean water. Audubon is thrilled that the New York State budget includes historic reforms that will allow us to fully protect all of our freshwater wetlands for the first time. We thank Assemblyman Englebright and Senator Harckham and the members of the New York State Senate for their leadership and commitment to protecting our environment.”
Tracy Brown, President of Riverkeeper, said, “Riverkeeper is celebrating this major win for freshwater wetland protection that was many years in the making! As Senator Harckham and Assemblyman Englebright know, wetlands reduce flooding, clean our water and provide important habitat. Preserving existing wetlands is one of the greenest and most cost effective approaches to minimizing the destructive impacts of climate change in the Hudson Valley and across New York. Riverkeeper thanks Senator Harckham and Assemblyman Englebright for working through difficult negotiations to achieve a great result. We look forward to working with DEC on effective regulations that grant our wetlands and vernal pools the protection and future generations deserve.”
Jessica Ottney Mahar, New York Policy and Strategy Director for The Nature Conservancy, said, “Wetlands provide critical habitat for wildlife and flood protection for communities and are endangered, being lost to development. Our state leaders recognized the importance of these natural assets and ensured small, freshwater wetlands can be protected for generations to come. The Nature Conservancy applauds and thanks Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, Senator Harckham, Senator Kaminsky, Assembly Speaker Heastie, Assemblyman Englebright and Governor Hochul for expanding protections for New York’s freshwater wetlands in this year’s state budget.”