The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is revising the general Nationwide Permits (NWPs) it issues to develop wetlands when the construction will not cause significant environmental impact. The Corps says the changes, to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 15, will increase protection of aquatic ecosystems and make it easier to comply with the agency's "no net loss" standard.

"Overall, the permits are undergoing several small but important changes," says John Studt, chief of the Corps' regulatory branch. The agency first proposed revising the permitting process in 1999, when it said it would eliminate its general NWP 26 and creation of several other categories of its general permits. Those permits, adopted in mid-2000, were challenged in federal court by the National Association of Home Builders. The lawsuit continues, and the Corps has been tinkering with the permit classifications ever since. The latest round of proposals was unveiled in August and Studt says the final rules to be published Jan. 15 have several minor changes from that August proposal.

One provision that may ease the burden on developers is a new way to achieve the no-net-wetlands-loss standard. Previously, a builder or developer had to had to replace any wetlands acreage lost at a construction project on a one-for-one basis at that site. Under the revised plan, each of the Corps' 37 regional districts must ensure that any lost wetlands are replaced within that region, but not at a specific project. That will allow districts to be more flexible, explains Studt.

A spokeswoman for the home builders' association said it was too early to comment on the changes, but added that she did not expect it would affect the pending litigation.

The revisions also will strengthen the protections for streams, the Corps says. The August proposal would have eliminated the previous rule that limited the construction impact to no more than 300 linear feet for perennial and intermittent streams. The final rule makes draws a distinction between permanent streams and waterways that do not exist all year long. To qualify for a nationwide permit for development that affects a perennial stream, a permit applicant cannot fill more than 300 linear feet of that stream. But permits for intermittent streams will be issued by Corps districts, on a case-by-case basis.

The permits will take effect on March 16, 2002.