How to Identify the Presence of Wetlands on a Subject Property


Of the many variables to consider when buying a ranch property, one of the most important is determining the presence of wetlands. All land that falls under the US Army Corps of Engineers’ definition of a wetland presents a major obstacle to any kind of further development. This is due to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which aims to preserve “waters of the United States” from disruption and harm.

Here’s what you need to know to identify wetland areas on a prospective ranching property.

What is a Wetland?

Wetlands are areas that regularly hold water or contain waterlogged soils throughout much of the growing season. There are a number of different kinds of wetlands, including swamps, marshes, and bogs. These definitions are based largely on the types of vegetation that flourish in these particular waters. Yet, all wetlands share the distinction of being vital parts of the ecosystem. They naturally filter sediments and contaminants from water, act as habitats for a variety of plants and animals, and prevent flooding by acting as giant sponges that gradually release excess water.

Why Wetlands May be Obstacles for Landowners

To secure permission to build near wetlands, landowners may have to pass through a lot of red tape. On occasion, both local and federal government entities must issue a permit. At the very least, you may have to obtain a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers, and these can be difficult to acquire. The process may take an extended period of time, as a qualified consultant or USACE member must come to the property and determine whether the land contains a wetland, and if so, the boundaries of that wetland area. This determination is conducted through an intensive examination of the region’s vegetation, soil, and water levels.

Even then, if your planned project doesn’t intrude on the wetland’s boundaries, the USACE can potentially reject permits if there is another viable location on the property for your development.

Needless to say, there are a lot of hoops to jump through.

How do you Identify Wetlands on a Property?

Wetlands often develop near lakes, rivers, and oceans, making their presence somewhat easy to see. However, identification can get tricky, as land does not need to be wet year-round to be considered a wetland. Seasonal changes in rainfall, snowpack, and temperature can leave the land knee-deep in water in the early summer, and dry as a bone in autumn.

The only way to absolutely identify wetlands is via a qualified consultant. However, there are a couple of tools available that can give you an educated sense of whether the property you’re looking at contains this protected land.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service offers the Wetlands Mapper— a free, interactive mapping service that details identified wetland areas throughout the United States. The maps utilize satellite images, and can zoom in on specific plots of land. Wetlands of all different types are outlined in color, and clicking on them will display specific classification codes and reports. The maps aren’t perfectly accurate, and won’t contain every single wetland, but they are a great resource for initial research into the prospective property.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a similar web program called the Web Soil Survey. It also uses satellite data, and measures soil surveys taken from around the country. You can find a property and access data showing soil composition, as well as markers identifying how well drained the soil actually is. Again, this isn’t meant as a substitute for a local consultant, but it’s a solid preliminary tool. Here’s a guide to using the program.

Wetlands are vital to local ecosystems, and are therefore strictly regulated by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers. If you’re interested in a ranch property and need to determine whether it holds wetland areas, you can utilize the online tools above, contact a local consultant or Corps Office, and reach out to us at Ranch Marketing Associates. We have decades of knowledge and experience dealing with land management, preservation, and development, and would love to help you find the perfect ranch. Browse RMA’s ranches for sale in Colorado, California, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming or contact us today to learn how we can help.

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