NASHVILLE, Tenn. (March 24, 2022) – Ever wonder what federal agency provides regulatory oversight of commercial and private development affecting wetlands and waterways? The answer is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which facilitates environmental stewardship through its Regulatory Program.
Corps of Engineers districts across the United States are charged with this responsibility in their respective regions. In middle and eastern Tennessee and portions of Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, the USACE Nashville District Regulatory Division consults and assists customers with regulatory permit applications.
“We evaluate permits to protect aquatic resources, including wetlands, rivers, and streams, to minimize the environmental impact of construction and dredging activities,” said Todd Tillinger, Nashville District Regulatory Division chief.
The Corps of Engineers handles permit applications for essentially all work in “waters of the United States” that are regulated pursuant to Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
All regulated activities occurring within jurisdictional areas require a permit, which include dredging, bank stabilization, recreational ponds and lakes, as well as the construction of fixed docks/boat slips, floating docks/boat slips, marinas, fleeting areas, boat ramps, roads, transportation crossings, residential and commercial developments, utility lines, and mining activities.
The Nashville District Regulatory Division has about 30 employees that work to protect water resources and provide reasonable and timely decisions to customers that apply for permits.
Tim Wilder, Nashville District Regulatory Division West Branch chief, said in the last five years the East Branch, West Branch, and Technical Services Branch in Nashville, Tennessee; Eastern Regulatory Field Office in Lenoir City, Tennessee; and Western Regulatory Field Office in Decatur, Alabama; have completed 7,511 permitting decisions, an average of about 1,500 per year.
“During that time, technical staff completed 2,207 site reviews for the presence of jurisdictional waters, about 440 per year, and 1,704 site compliance inspections,” Wilder said. “Our technical staff reviews projects for their potential effects on several areas of public interest such as the natural environment, navigation, economic development, public safety, threatened and endangered species, historic properties, and others.”
When commercial and private property owners seek to develop land with streams and wetlands, the law requires them to contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to apply for a permit, and if needed can consult about safeguarding aquatic resources.
Mark M. McIntosh, biologist in the East Regulatory Field Office at Lenoir City, Tennessee, said he assists customers and works to answer questions about their permit actions. His ultimate priority is to provide fair and balanced decisions.
“We work with applicants in preconstruction meetings and try to help develop their plans to reduce impacts. We also inspect the things that we do permit for the public or for other agencies or non-governmental organizations,” McIntosh said. “Basically we are trying to retain and restore waters of the U.S. in allowing reasonable development. So we review applications and mitigate for loss or impacts to those waters.”
McIntosh added that part of the mission is to partner with other agencies, such as protecting endangered species and historical resources. During the permit process, the Nashville District considers the views of state environmental agencies and other federal agencies like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Tennessee Valley Authority, he added.
“Anytime we issue a permit we have to follow other laws to protect public and private resources as well,” he stressed.
The regulatory team has revolutionized its services to obtain better information and data systems. It is utilizing efficiencies like electronic communication, remote sensing tools, and Geographic Information System technologies to provide timely responses and assistance. More than 80% of permit actions are completed within 60 days.
“Our staff completes thorough reviews of large numbers of regulatory actions,” Wilder said. “They follow up with inspections on hundreds of sites where permits have been issued. They are all committed to serving the public’s interest in the nation’s waters and their work reflects that.”
Ben MacIntyre, biologist in the Nashville District Regulatory Division West Branch in Nashville, Tennessee, worked as a park ranger managing natural resources at Corps Lakes for about 10 years. He joined the Regulatory Division team over two and a half years ago and now assists customers to process regulatory permits. He said his experience as a ranger helped prepare him to assist the public with protecting natural resources on other public lands and private properties.
“The mindset of managing natural resources, the stewardship of natural resources, and working with the public did really set me up well for this position,” MacIntyre said. “I really do enjoy the science part of it and having to make decisions on the jurisdictional status of streams and wetlands and understanding their characteristics and the ecology aspect of that.”
MacIntyre said coordinating and reaching out to the Corps of Engineers before starting work is important. Making a simple phone call or sending an e-mail about the project before it begins can save an applicant heartache in the long run, he advised.
Mitigation is also a critical tool to meet the longstanding national goal of “no net loss” of wetland acreage and function. The Corps of Engineers uses compensatory mitigation to restore a previously existing wetland or aquatic site, enhance an existing aquatic site’s functions, establish a new aquatic site, or preserve an existing aquatic site.
Mark G. McIntosh, project manager in the Nashville District Regulatory Division Technical Services Branch, said the first step is always to avoid and minimize impacts to streams and wetlands.
“Once the applicant has demonstrated they’ve avoided and minimized to the maximum extent practicable, we look at what compensatory mitigation is needed to offset the unavoidable impacts,” he explained. “If the project is impacting say an acre of wetland, the permittee would need to purchase wetland mitigation credits from a mitigation bank, In-Lieu Fee Program, or provide permittee responsible mitigation.”
Applicants have three options for mitigation. They are mitigation bank credits, In-Lieu Fee Program credits, and permittee responsible credits. The permitting data shows that the use of mitigation bank and In-Lieu Fee Program credits can reduce permit processing times. Permit processing times were fastest when mitigation bank credits (120 days) or In Lieu Fee Program credits (136 days) were the approved source of compensatory mitigation, compared to 177 days for on-site permittee-responsible mitigation and 243 days for off-site permittee responsible mitigation.
After a legitimate effort to avoid and mitigate impacts, mitigation credits purchased by residential and industrial developers are used to restore wetlands and waterways, offsetting a project’s impacts, he explained.
The public is encouraged to call the Nashville District Regulatory Division at 615-369-7500 about the regulatory permitting process or visit https://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/ for more detailed information.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps.)