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Rules and Regulations

Freshwater Wetlands Permitting

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What are they? Freshwater wetlands are areas that are flooded or that have water at or near the surface for part of most growing seasons. They commonly occur between uplands and water bodies; however, many freshwater wetlands stand alone and are surrounded by upland. Freshwater wetlands are widespread throughout Rhode Island, encompassing approximately 13 percent of the State's land area. Swamps, marshes, ponds, rivers, and streams are considered wetlands in Rhode Island as are other smaller areas and certain adjacent areas known as perimeter wetlands, riverbank wetlands, and floodplain.

Why are they regulated? Freshwater wetlands perform functions and provide values that are vital to people and the environment. Wetlands reduce flood and storm damages by temporarily holding rain water and surface water, thereby protecting property and structures. They protect and improve water quality; they provide important fish and wildlife habitat contributing to Rhode Island’s biodiversity; and they support hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and other recreational activities that contribute revenue to Rhode Island's economy. All of these functions and services contribute to a healthy and stable environment and economy.

How are they regulated in RI? Understanding the importance of wetlands, in July, 1971, the Rhode Island legislators passed the Rhode Island Freshwater Wetlands Act and authorized the Department of Environmental Management to preserve and regulate the freshwater wetlands of the state for the public benefits that they provide. “Freshwater wetlands in the vicinity of the coast” are regulated by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

The Department's Freshwater Wetlands Program is staffed by professional scientists and engineers who routinely assist property owners and their consultants to understand the Rules and Regulations and the general application requirements described in Rule 7.00. Property owners who propose projects or activities in or near freshwater wetlands must first obtain a permit from the Department. There are eleven wetlands application types summarized in Rule 5.00, and the type of application required depends on the nature of the request. The Request for Preliminary Determination is the most common application type and it is appropriate for applicants seeking an insignificant alteration permit. The Department maintains an online searchable database of prior wetland decisions to assist in determining if there is already a file and any specific information pertaining to a property.

The Program, supported by application fees and state general funds, generally completes 500 to 600 application decisions a year, although those numbers are currently depressed. The Program implements avoidance and minimization requirements thereby keeping direct wetland losses to a minimum. For some limited activities - identified in Rule 6.00 as Exempt Activities - a property owner may proceed without a written permit provided all of the protective conditions in Rule 6.00 are met.