FITZWILLIAM — Town officials are taking steps to create an inventory of the community’s best wetlands in hopes of strengthening protections for them.
The prime wetlands study, which is being done by Ecosystem Management Consultants of Sandwich, comes as many residents and town officials fight the proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project. However, this is not the main reason for pursuing the town-wide investigation, according to a town selectman and a conservation commission member.
State law defines all prime wetlands as contiguous areas that have wetlands’ features, but because of factors such as their size, unspoiled character and fragile condition, they’re of “substantial significance.” The definition continues that wetlands also must have an area of least 2 acres and 50 feet wide at the narrowest point, have a water body and at least four wetlands functions including one being a wildlife habitat.
Those values include whether the wetland has ecological integrity, functions as a wildlife habitat, stabilizes a shoreline, acts as flood storage area, protects ground water resources or has aesthetically pleasing qualities, according to state administrative rules.
Fitzwilliam has many wetlands, but not all of them, and their values, are documented, town officials say. They hope this prime wetlands study will change that.
“We were looking at the water resources in town, and realized it would be a good idea to have the study done,” Selectman Susan S. Silverman said Wednesday. “It has a strong educational piece to it, and will help people understand the value of wetlands.”
It also makes sense after the town had a natural resources inventory done in 2009, she said.
“Why not do this?” she asked. “If you look at the natural resources inventory, it mentions wetlands and water bodies, but it doesn’t go much further than that.”
A natural resources inventory is a survey that records the status, condition and trends of an area’s resources such as land cover, soil and water.
Silverman added that voters approved spending $15,000 for a professional study of the town’s wetlands at town meeting in 2014.
In July, selectmen voted unanimously to hire Rick Van de Poll, principal of Ecosystem Management Consultants, to conduct the study, which began earlier this month.
The conservation commission and planning board also support the proposal.
On Monday, Van de Poll, a certified wetlands scientist, is expected to present an overview of the process and explain the tasks involved in completing the study, according to an announcement on the town’s website. The presentation, which is open to the public, will be held at 7 p.m. at Fitzwilliam Town Hall.
Van de Poll said in a phone interview earlier this month that state law gives New Hampshire cities and towns the option to designate prime wetlands through a process that includes approvals from voters and state environmental officials. Once approved as a prime wetland, a public hearing and approval would be required from the state environmental officials for any proposed filling or dredging in the prime wetland areas, he said.
Collis G. Adams, an administrator for the N.H Wetlands Bureau, said anyone seeking to do work affecting a wetland needs to apply for a state permit.
“With a regular wetland, you only have to demonstrate that you’ve avoided or minimized the impact to the greatest extent possible,” he said. “When you have a prime wetland, you have to demonstrate that there will be no reduction in the function and values identified as multiple functions of the wetland.”
Van de Poll said he is in the process of mapping and taking aerial photographs of Fitzwilliam’s wetlands, and most of the action on the study will take place this fall.
He will then use a screening process to identify the high-quality wetlands, and present his draft findings to town officials and residents for feedback, he said. That feedback about which of the top wetlands community members believe should be considered prime will help shape his final report, he said.
“I’m guessing in Fitzwilliam there will be 100 to 150 wetlands complexes, and once I’ve done the ranking process, it will probably be boiled down to about 50,” he said.
After he presents his draft findings in December, he expects the number will drop again, he said. On average, towns have end up with 10 to 15 prime wetlands, he said.
Voters will then need to approve the prime wetlands at town meeting, if in favor, the results and report will be sent to the N.H. Department of Environmental Services for final approval, he said.
According to the N.H Department of Environmental Services, 33 communities in the Granite State have prime wetlands designations with the closest to Fitzwilliam being New Ipswich.
Paul M. Kotila, chairman of the Fitzwilliam Conservation Commission, said the values of wetlands include protecting local water supplies, wildlife habitats and flood control areas.
People knowing where wetlands are in a community is as fundamental as knowing about all its natural resources, he said.
“It’s important towns know what they have for natural communities,” he said. “If they don’t know, it’s difficult to decide how, or what you want to do to preserve them.”
Other than Fitzwilliam having a lot of wetlands, many town officials and residents don’t know what features they may have, and this is concerning, especially with the proposed Northeast Energy Direct project, he said.
The Northeast Energy Direct pipeline would cross 71 miles of southern New Hampshire, including Fitzwilliam, Richmond, Rindge, Troy and Winchester.
The pipeline’s proposed route through Fitzwilliam has it crossing at least the wetlands in the Scott Pond area, Kotila said, but he’s not sure if there are others in the project’s path.
There are also other areas of town that local officials are curious about, including a boggy wetland system at the south side of Sportman’s Pond, he said.
Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. LLC, a Kinder Morgan company, is proposing this pipeline to carry natural gas from shale gas fields in Pennsylvania through upstate New York, part of northern Massachusetts and into southern New Hampshire before going to a distribution hub in eastern Massachusetts.
“The pipeline has made it evident that if we have no protections in place, we can be in trouble in a real hurry,” Kotila said.