NYLCV Advocates for Expanded Protection of New York Wetlands

In the fight against climate change, carbon sinks play a vital role in reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. These sinks, such as forests and wetlands, also host a variety of biodiversity, providing the foundation on which the climate can heal and recover. However, over 60 percent of New York State’s wetlands have been lost due to human development, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, putting already-fragile ecosystems at risk as greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere.

Last June, in response to the degradation of these regions in New York, the New York State Senate passed Senator Pete Harckham’s proposed reform to the existing NYS Freshwater Wetlands Act, arguing that the law as it exists currently is failing to protect the state’s marshes and swamps due to outdated mapping systems and size requirements, coupled with the issue of inconsistent federal protections as a result of partisan interests and disagreements. Now, Governor Kathy Hochul has included an updated version of this proposal in her Executive Budget.

Why protect the wetlands?

As is true of many protected natural areas, New York’s wetlands boast a variety of important roles when it comes to sustaining the state’s flora and fauna, in addition to benefiting the lives of New Yorkers every day.

First and foremost, wetlands improve water quality by removing heavy metals, sediment, toxic contaminants, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. By extension, wetlands trap and store water that slowly percolates, replenishing aquifers that serve both private and municipal water systems. Additionally, wetlands offer flood protection, with one million gallons of water being stored for every one acre of wetland, while also mitigating shoreline erosion.

Where the wetlands offer a recreational resource for New Yorkers to enjoy hunting, angling, hiking, and boating, they are also the home of an immense amount of wildlife, putting them on the same level of bioproductivity as rainforests and coral reefs. Over half of the 160 species recognized as endangered by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are wetland-dependent. Further, the populations of a wide variety of commercial and game fish and birds rely on the wetlands to maintain their population sizes, putting these animals at risk of habitat loss should ecoregion conditions continue to worsen.

What are the current threats to New York’s wetlands?

The biggest threat to the safety and sustainability of wetlands is human development. As we continue to expand into our natural landscapes, many wetlands are at risk of being filled in or degraded.

Additionally, while wetlands offer reliable flood protection, rising sea levels and frequent flooding impact the location and size of wetlands. Should wetland regions dry out, they can release the greenhouse gasses they previously stored into the atmosphere. By extension, though wetlands are natural filters, an excess of human involvement can also negatively impact them through excessive pollution or nutrients oversaturating the system.

Wetland communities can also be disrupted by invasive species such as phragmites, purple loosestrife, and Japanese knotweed, which throw off the balance of the existing ecosystems.

Why does the law need amending?

A primary concern taken into account by this proposal is that the freshwater wetlands maps currently used to outline DEC’s regulatory authority are costly and time-consuming to update, with the end result that many of these maps are over twenty-seven years old. DEC needs to be able to protect vulnerable wetlands without going through an expensive, multi-year mapping process, and landowners need access to current maps that can be updated by the DEC without unnecessary red tape.

Further, the DEC currently can only regulate a wetland if it is larger than 12.4 acres in size, smaller than 12.4 acres and of “unusual local importance,” and identified on the freshwater wetlands map. These overly strict definitions mean that there are more than 1 million unmapped, unprotected acres of wetlands in New York.

How will the law be amended?

The proposal in the Executive Budget offers protection to wetlands of all sizes. The Governor’s proposal would grant DEC regulatory authority for all wetlands over 12.4 acres, whether they are on the current freshwater wetlands map or not, and under 12.4 acres if are of unusual importance, with a clearer definition of “unusual importance” than current law.

As stated previously, outdated maps pose one of the biggest problems in resolving the issue of wetland degradation. However, the map amendment process can be time consuming and overly burdened with administrative costs. Updating the maps takes a minimum of 18 months and costs approximately $100,000 per watershed. As such, the Governor’s proposal seeks to eliminate the regulatory maps and allow the DEC to regulate wetlands as wetlands. These maps would, however, be retained for educational purposes, expanded upon using digital mapping tools, and posted on DEC’s website.

The proposal also outlines a framework that provides meaningful protection for wetlands that are smaller than 12.4 acres and of “unusual importance.” Such areas under the amendment would include: (i) wetlands in a watershed that has experienced significant flooding; (ii) urban wetlands, (iii) wetlands that provide habitat for rare plant species or vulnerable wildlife, (iv) wetlands currently classified as Class I wetlands by the DEC, (v) wetlands important to the state’s water quality, and (vi) wetlands that were previously classified as having “unusual local importance.”

The loss of these habitats not only threatens native flora and fauna, but also citizens in surrounding regions, who rely on the wetlands for protection amid the increasing threats posed by climate change.  Governor Hochul’s proposal represents the biggest step to protect New York’s wetlands in a generation, and NYLCV enthusiastically supports its inclusion in this year’s State budget.


By J. Dickinson-Frevola