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Checking the Health of Wetlands: Easy as 1-2-3

Easy as 1-2-3

To check a patient's health, physicians use simple blood pressure tests to sophisticated and expensive diagnostics. Natural resource managers also have a variety of assessment tools ranging in complexity, accuracy and cost at their disposal to check the health of wetlands. The challenge: Determine which tools to use, and where, and when to use them to protect wetlands in the most effective and least costly manner.

Monitoring wetland condition is essential to determine if environmental actions to protect them are effective, said Mary Kentula, wetlands ecologist with EPA's Office of Research and Development. That is why EPA scientists and colleagues have tested a new three-level approach to improve wetland assessments.

The 1-2-3 Approach, as it is called, has led to the collection of reliable information on the condition of wetlands in a cost-effective and timely fashion. The research is described in a series of nine papers authored by EPA ecologists and others published in the September issue of Wetlands.

This approach starts with simpler methods and models to identify areas of potential concern and advances to more complicated methods as environmental problems or issues are pinpointed. A rapid assessment may be done first, for example, and often more expensive tests conducted only if needed.

The 1-2-3 approach encourages resource managers to evaluate their testing options based on their highest-priority management needs and to select appropriate methods based on these needs. Also, resource managers can compare and correlate results generated by the different methods to evaluate how well new methods are working and to add diagnostic information about the severity and geographic extent of an identified wetland problem.

The 1-2-3 Approach was effectively tested in two wetland-rich watersheds--Nanticoke Watershed in Maryland and Delaware, and Upper Juniata Watershed in Pennsylvania. The research demonstrated that local communities, states, tribes and others can use this approach to reduce the cost of monitoring and obtain reliable results when assessing wetlands.

The research findings are being applied to other monitoring projects across the country and are being used to plan and design a national assessment of wetlands by EPA, scheduled for 2011.

Someone wanting to use the 1-2-3 Approach can start at any of the three levels depending on their objectives and information needs. The first level, and most general method, is an assessment of the entire landscape using generally available maps and digital and aerial photography. The second involves the use of rapid methods that produce more information than Level 1 and requires some work in the field. These methods are used to evaluate aspects of the ecological features of the wetlands - the soil, water, and biota - and to assess impacts of human activities that stress the local ecology. The most comprehensive level, Level 3, involves an assessment using the most intensive methods to collect data on the biological, physical, chemical, and hydrologic attributes of a site.

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