Tag: Environmental Permitting

Vernal Pools: Springing to life!

hand holding eggs over water

Here we are, it’s March! You made it through the cold dark winter! The days are getting longer, the sunlight is feeling warmer, and maybe this year more than ever, many of us are feeling the push to move more, get outside, feel that sun on our faces. To be sure, there will be one more snowy day that will surprise us – and is it really a surprise when it happens every year? – but the idea that winter is behind us lifts our human spirits.

The wildlife around us are feeling it too; they are awakening from their winter hide-aways and are starting to move around, looking for food and mates. The extra daylight, warmer ground temperatures and spring rains trigger movement for a special group of animals that use temporary vernal pool habitat to complete their life cycles. If you hear the high-pitched call of the spring peepers, or the quacking sound of a wood frog chorus, chances are you are near a vernal pool. 

What is a vernal pool? Vernal pools are seasonal bodies of water that form only in the spring in shallow depressions that occur throughout the glaciated region of eastern North America, including the Great Lakes and New England. One key factor that separates vernal pools from any old puddle that we see in the spring as snow melts, groundwater rises and rain collects in low places is the lack of an outlet or connection to running water, such as a stream, brook or creek. This specific difference allows for a special habitat that lacks fish, where certain amphibians, insects and other invertebrates can lay their eggs and complete a portion of their life cycle. The other important factor in identifying a vernal pool is that while they may stay on the landscape for at least two months, vernal pools are generally ephemeral, or temporary, so as spring rains pass and temperatures rise, the pool will disappear. This drying also prevents fish from establishing permanent populations. You may walk by a vernal pool on your summer day hikes and not notice this very special habitat.

Vernal pools vary in size and can be surrounded by wetlands, swamps or dry land, depending on where they sit in the regional landscape. In some cases, deeper sections can look like a pond and have vegetation reflective of that such as water lilies or grasses, while others may be only a few inches deep and have a layer of leaves or moss at the bottom. While they are most often found in forested areas, they can also occur in fields or roadsides. Some pools can fill in the autumn or winter and remain ice-covered until the magical combination of spring weather allows for ice to thaw and the organisms to come out, while others remain dry through summer, fall and winter and are only apparent in the spring.

Why are vernal pools protected? One reason is because the unique set of species that depend on these pools cannot exist anywhere else, and they in turn play a role in the ecological life cycle that supports all life on this planet. Vernal pools are considered a type of wetland or water body, and in New England, are regulated and protected at the federal level by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Each state also has regulations specific to vernal pool identification and protection, and in Maine and Massachusetts, mapping and recordation as well. In New Hampshire, vernal pools are regulated and protected per the state wetland rules Env-Wt and are defined under Chapter 100. Vernal pool identification is based on physical factors as well as the primary and secondary indicators, which are specific species that only use vernal pools as habitat.

Vernal pools come to life in different times of year within New England, as early as late February along the Rhode Island and Connecticut coasts, while upper Vermont and Maine will not see vernal pool activity until mid-April. Here in New Hampshire, we start to see amphibian migration on warm rainy nights starting in late March and extending through late May.  

Vernal pool organisms also rely on the undisturbed upland surrounding the pool, what is often called the pool envelope. Vernal pool amphibians spend most of the year in the upland discretely feeding, hibernating, and preparing to breed in the spring. Protection of uplands around vernal pools from development or alteration is an important part of the regulatory and permitting process, which is why identifying vernal pools during the correct time of year is an important part of planning for any development type of project, including not only residential and commercial development, but also infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.

Hoyle, Tanner’s Certified Wetland Scientist, Joanne Theriault, has the training and experience to investigate your site for vernal pools – and given the length of time spent indoors this winter assisting her children with remote learning, she is eager to get outdoors again! Reach out to her with questions!

The New Great Bay Total Nitrogen General Permit

Pink and purple sunset image over water with tree skyline of Great Bay Estuary

What is the Great Bay Total Nitrogen General Permit & why does it matter?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the final Great Bay Total Nitrogen General Permit (GBTNGP) on November 24, 2020. The GBTNGP is aimed at reducing the overall nitrogen loading into Great Bay, a unique coastal marine estuary. The GBTNGP covers discharges of nitrogen from the 13 communities that own/operate wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed: Dover, Durham, Epping, Exeter, Milton, Newfields, Newington, Newmarket, Pease Tradeport, Portsmouth, Rochester, Rollinsford and Somersworth. The permit allows for an adaptive management approach to monitoring and reducing nitrogen discharges. Each community has the option of being included for coverage under the GBTNGP or not (opt in or opt out). If a community decides to be included for coverage under the permit it must file a Notice of Intent with the EPA, Region 1, by April 2, 2021. The alternative to opting in to the GBTNGP will be that the community will receive a new/revised individual NPDES permit to govern its WWTF discharge. Key dates for actions to be taken pursuant to the GBTNGP are as follows:

  • February 1, 2021 – Effective date of the Great Bay Total Nitrogen General Permit.
  • March 31, 2021 – Deadline for finalizing an Intermunicipal Agreement to develop the Adaptive Management Plan.
  • April 2, 2021 – Deadline for sending EPA the Notice of Intent to Opt-In to the TN General Permit.
  • July 31, 2021 – Deadline for submittal to EPA of the Part 3 Adaptive Management Plan.

How can an Adaptive Management Approach help?

The GBTNGP allows for an adaptive management approach to be taken for monitoring and controlling nitrogen discharges and allows for the communities to develop the Adaptive Management Plan. Adaptive management is a key aspect of watershed management and restoration. Elements of adaptive management included in GBTNGP involve ambient monitoring, pollution tracking, reduction planning, and review. Adaptive Management is, by definition, a structured iterative process of robust decision making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via ongoing system monitoring. In this way, decision making simultaneously meets one or more resource management objectives and, either passively or actively, accrues information needed to improve future management and decision-making. Adaptive management is a tool which can be used not only to change a system, but also to learn about the system (Holling 1978). Because adaptive management is based on a learning process, it improves long-term management outcomes. The challenge in using the adaptive management approach lies in finding the correct balance between gaining knowledge to improve management in the future and achieving the best short-term outcomes based on current knowledge (Allan & Stankey 2009).

A holistic & cost-effective approach.

The objective of an adaptive management approach is to take a broad holistic and more cost-effective approach to implementing water quality restoration and management measures that will achieve better overall results in improving water quality goals in less time and at less cost than the traditional regulate-react approach by applying limited resources where they will have the greatest effect. In fact, the GBTNGP encourages sharing of resources and costs among the participating communities. The adaptive management approach allows for planning, implementation, monitoring and refinement in order to maximize the results with limited resources (resource optimization). The idea behind an adaptive management approach is for communities to become proactive rather than reactive in restoring water quality within the watershed. A successful adaptive management approach will require extensive collaboration and cooperation between municipalities, regulators, agencies, volunteer groups and other watershed stakeholders.

Our experience.

Hoyle, Tanner’s Northeast Municipal Engineering services Group (NEME) employs 20 engineers whose primary focus is water quality engineering – wastewater, stormwater and drinking water. Our depth and breadth of experience includes working with communities to assist them with compliance with permits such as NPDES (wastewater and stormwater), MS4 (stormwater and non-point) and a host of other regulatory and environmental permits. We have been working with communities under regulatory constraints to monitor and reduce the amount of total nitrogen discharged to local water bodies and helping them to achieve water quality goals. Jennie Auster, one of our wastewater process engineers, has been working with communities affected by the Long Island Sound Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Nitrogen for over six years including completing biological nutrient removal analysis for several facilities. Jennie completed nitrogen removal optimization plans for six communities and has presented at the Green Mountain Water Environment Association Technical Sessions on her experience with low-cost nitrogen optimization plans (presentation available upon request). We are assisting several communities on compliance with the 2017 MS4 permit which includes nutrient reduction in stormwater and non-point sources. We are also working with many communities on asset management for their wastewater, stormwater and drinking water systems, the goal of which is resource optimization to improve decision-making and maximize the life of the infrastructure.

Let us help!

Our team has a history of developing creative and innovative solutions to help clients achieve their goals in cost-effective ways while optimizing the use of limited resources. For more information please visit our website at: www.hoyletanner.com or contact Michael Trainque or Joseph Ducharme.

I am a Senior Environmental Engineer and Vice President at Hoyle, Tanner, and chairman of the Board of Directors of the Southeast Watershed Alliance (SWA). The SWA is a non-profit watershed organization for which enabling legislation was enacted by the NH State Legislature in 2009 encompassing the 42 communities in the NH coastal watershed. I have been following the development of this permit on behalf of clients.

Celebrating National Endangered Species Day with Awareness of the Canada Lynx

Canada lynx in the snow

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was created in 1973 to protect at-risk species and the habitat those species use to complete their life cycles. This important piece of legislation came out of a growing recognition that the impacts from growth and development were having negative effects on the environment. It was issued shortly after the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, and together these two Acts provide the legal foundation for much of the environmental protection regulations that work to ensure that the many varied ecosystems within the United States remain, or strive to become, healthy, sustainable and well-balanced. 

Together these two Acts provide the legal foundation for much of the environmental protection regulations that work to ensure that the many varied ecosystems within the United States remain, or strive to become, healthy, sustainable and well-balanced. 

Species that are protected under the ESA are either classified as endangered or threatened. Endangered means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Threatened means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened.

The ESA is administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for terrestrial and freshwater species, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for marine species. More information on the ESA, including the list of species currently being protected, as well as “candidate” species, which are those proposed for protection, can be found at: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/species/us-species.html.

Our work on a wide variety of projects across six states and a range of habitats requires us to consult with USFWS and NMFS during project planning to ensure that we adhere to the requirements for species protection where necessary.

To determine potential impacts to environmental resources (including several parameters such as water, air quality, and noise) when we begin planning for a project, we review the project site using USFWS and NMFS online mapping. Online mapping helps to determine if there is habitat for a listed species. Each species that is listed under the ESA has a defined land range that is developed from data regarding current habitat needs for that species and species surveys; the result is that not only are locations where the species currently exist protected, but there is also protection offered in areas where the species could survive if their population numbers were to increase.

The result is that not only are locations where the species currently exist protected, but there is also protection offered in areas where the species could survive if their population numbers were to increase.

Projects in northern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine have the potential to be located within the range of the federally-threatened Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). Canada lynx is a medium-sized cat with long legs, large, well-furred paws, long tufts on the ears, and a short, black-tipped tail. Their long legs and large feet are highly adapted for hunting snowshoe hares (Lepus americana) – their primary prey species – in deep snow conditions. The distribution of lynx in New England is associated with northern forests that are a mix of spruce and balsam fir, among other pine species, some hardwoods such as birch and aspen, and hardwood and softwood trees, such as pine. Lynx are more likely to inhabit landscapes that provide suitable habitat for snowshoe hare populations in regenerating forest environments rather than landscapes with very recent clearcut or partial tree harvests. There are a number of scenarios that may unfold when a project is located within Canada lynx habitat – depending on the size and amount of the project, and how much habitat alteration may occur.

Prior to project inception, we coordinate with USFWS to describe the project and provide details regarding any potential change that may occur to the existing habitat (including tree removal or land clearing and soil excavation). Depending on the amount of potential habitat alteration, we may develop a Biological Assessment to provide to the USFWS. This assessment includes an in-depth analysis of the potential use and value of the habitat within the project area, and helps make a determination of the effect on Canada lynx, both as individuals and as a regional population. Sometimes surveying for lynx within the project area may need to be completed by a wildlife biologist in order to determine if lynx are actively using the land.

If potential habitat exists in the project area but there is a low likelihood of lynx using that habitat, the project may be required to modify the design such that tree removal is limited to the smallest area possible. There may be requirements to complete this clearing at a time when the impact to any potential lynx using the habitat would be the least harmful, such as during seasons when females will not be giving birth. If it is identified that lynx are actively using the project area, then additional coordination with USFWS is necessary to ensure the project will not directly affect those individuals.

We recently completed a Biological Assessment for Canada lynx at the Sugarloaf Regional Airport in Carrabassett Valley, Maine where tree removal within potential lynx habitat was proposed.

We recently completed a Biological Assessment for Canada lynx at the Sugarloaf Regional Airport in Carrabassett Valley, Maine where tree removal within potential lynx habitat was proposed. We worked with USFWS biologists to reduce the potential impacts to this habitat, and any lynx that may be using the area, by strictly limiting the area of tree removal to only that which is necessary to complete this important safety project, to ensure the result will increase the safety of the public using this airport, while also minimizing the risk to Canada lynx.

If you would like to learn more about Canada lynx, or the other species listed under the Endangered Species Act and the steps you can do celebrate Endangered Species Day, check out the USFWS website. Our environmental experts are here to answer your questions and help guide you through the project process while avoiding or minimizing impacts to listed species. Reach out to me and our environmental team will be happy to help.