Filling wetlands or streams to convert them to housing developments or a few extra acres of agricultural land causes an obvious loss of important habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires that such destruction be minimized and mitigated, and as with many programs of the Act, your participation and vigilance is critical to its success.
Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires that anyone who proposes to dredge or discharge dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, including wetlands and streams, must get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) before doing so. This includes situations where an individual seeks to “straighten” a stream. Before the Corps can issue the permit, the applicant must demonstrate that:
- there are no practical alternatives;
- the project will not cause significant degradation;
- all negative impacts on the wetland and/or streams are mitigated; and
- Illinois EPA certifies that the project will not violate water quality requirements.
Mitigation can include creation of a new wetland or stream habitat to replace the one that is lost, restoration of a degraded stream or wetland, enhancement of an existing resource and/or preservation of an existing high quality resource. If the applicant does not satisfy these requirements, the Corps must deny the permit.
Keep your eyes and ears open for unpermitted destruction. Neither Illinois EPA nor the Corps has staff available to patrol watersheds to ensure that nobody dredges or fills wetland or stream habitats without a permit. Therefore the responsibility of looking for and reporting unpermitted activities falls on you, your neighbors, and your watershed organization. If you don’t do this, nobody will.
Such monitoring does not require special skills or knowledge. Simply pay attention as you are driving through your watershed. Bulldozers are large and relatively easy to spot. If you see one near a wetland or stream, inquire locally about the activity. If it appears that dirt is being pushed into or dug out of a wetland or stream, contact your Corps of Engineers District office immediately (see below) to report the activity and find out if they have a permit.
Participate in Permitting Decisions
The Clean Water Act emphasizes the importance of public participation in decisions that affect your streams and wetlands. You are encouraged to review and comment on proposals for 404 permits. The notices of applications for these permits are posted periodically on the Corps District websites (see below).
When reviewing and commenting on permit applications, keep in mind the legal requirements mentioned above and described in the regulations. Ensure that alternatives that would not affect the wetlands and streams are fully considered. If significant degradation would occur, describe the degradation and request that the Corps deny the permit. If the mitigation proposed would not fully replace the lost resource, or if no mitigation is proposed, request that the Corps deny the permit. A sample of a letter to the Corps is attached to help you get started (see Resources section). The mailing address for the correct Corps District office is included on the notice. As described in the notices, comments may also be submitted by email.
Send a copy of your comments to IEPA, and if water quality will be impacted by the project, ask IEPA to deny certification of the permit under section 401 of the Clean Water Act. These letters should be sent to: Illinois EPA, Bureau of Water, Watershed Management Section, P. O. Box 19276, Springfield, IL 62794-9276.
Contacting the Right Office of the Corps
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has district offices located throughout the country. Almost all of Illinois is covered by four districts. These districts and their contact info are summarized below. For a more detailed map showing the boundaries of these districts see the online map.
Chicago District – Lake, McHenry, Cook, Kane, DuPage, and Will Counties
Rock Island District – Northern half of Illinois, except counties in Chicago District
Louisville District – Southeast portion of the state, specifically the Wabash River basin
St. Louis District – Southwest portion of the state
Regulations -Because the summary presented here is necessarily simplified, we encourage you to learn more about the regulations that apply to dredge and fill projects. It is also useful to quote regulations directly in your comment letter.
Mitigation guidelines – Because mitigation is such an important part of most permits, it is useful to understand the guidelines the Corps uses in determining
whether proposed mitigation is acceptable. In addition to the Federal Regulatory Guidance Letter (found at the web address above), each
District should also have specific guidelines that incorporate the federal guidance.
For more information, download Prairie Rivers Network’s Drainage Handbook.