Acton’s Wetlands Still Protected

September 11, 2023
Fort Pond Brook watershed. Photo: Jeff Vandegrift

On August 29, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weakened federal protections for wetlands by limiting which lands that are wet  qualify for protection under the Clean Water Act. The EPA’s new rules respond to a Supreme Court determination in the case of landowners in Idaho who wanted to fill in a soggy area of their property prior to building a home. The new federal rules require that to qualify as a protected wetland, the connection between the land in question and a “relatively permanent” body of water such as a river must be clearer than was previously required. 

A black and white stippled drawing of a salamander partly hidden under a leaf
Drawing by Tom Tidman, former Acton Conservation Agent, Yellow-spotted salamander (Ambrystoma), at Nagog Hill.

In a phone interview, Acton’s Conservation Agent, Mike Gendron, responded to questions about how these recent changes at the federal level will impact protection of wetlands here in Acton. “The good news,” he began, “is that there will be no change in Acton.”  This is because the Acton Wetlands Bylaw specifically protects several categories of wetlands that are not protected in the federal law and may soon no longer be completely protected by Massachusetts state law. Gendron reports recent interest from other Massachusetts communities in using Acton’s Bylaw as a model for establishing or strengthening their own wetlands bylaw. 

The Acton Bylaw, established by Town Meeting vote in 2003, protects “wetlands, vernal pools, adjoining buffer zones, banks, lands subject to flooding and riverfront areas.” Acton identifies “wetlands” based on plant species and soil characteristics, and doesn’t require a connection to a larger body of water. Vernal pools are an example of a type of isolated, intermittent wetland that would not be protected under the federal definition. Vernal pools dry out for part of each year and thus provide critical breeding habitats, free of predatory fish, for many amphibian and invertebrate species.   

Enforcement of Acton’s Wetlands Bylaw as well as the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act is in the hands of the volunteer Conservation Commission, supported by the staff Conservation Agent. If a property owner wants to build or discharge or excavate or dredge or cause any other alteration near a wetland, the burden of proof is on the property owner to convince the Commission that the proposed activities will not harm the wetland’s effectiveness for flood control, erosion control, wildlife habitat, water supply or any of the other “interests” specified in the Bylaw. Before they make their decision, the Commission makes a site walk on the property to examine the wetland and verify its boundaries. So if you happen to notice a small group of Acton residents traipsing through mud and brush, bending over to examine plants and sample soil, and conferring over the location of small flags, you may have just spotted the Conservation Commission at work.   


Help support the cost of bringing accurate, relevant news to the Acton community.


Sign up to receive a weekly email newsletter providing links to our new articles.


Look here to access all articles in your areas of interest.


Don't Miss