Sunday, December 30, 2012

Update On "Wetland Science" vs. Hydrogeology

This blog was born out of the Charles Dalton controversy. In that situation, Dalton was accused of conducting various illegal activities in wetlands, including constructing buildings in wetland and riparian buffers. Wetland scientists claimed that a wetland and a stream existed on the Dalton property. Hydrogeologists said otherwise and presented countervailing evidence.

The battle between wetland scientists and hydrogeologists has been going on since 2008, and it was kicked off right here in San Juan County. That's when a resident state-licensed hydrogeologist first filed complaints with the Washington State Board of Geology about wetland scientists. Wetland scientists seemed to be practicing hydrogeology without having the necessary license or skills. Wetland scientists and their checklist methods seemed to be getting the hydrology of "wetlands" completely wrong.

After the Dalton case made news, the professional disagreements between hydrogeologists and wetland scientists intensified. State Geology Board meetings are typically pretty boring affairs, but in 2012, they were frequently attended by angry citizens and licensed professionals all complaining about wetland scientists. Wetland scientists also presented their case (especially at the December 19 meeting), including heavy-hitters from the Department of Ecology such as Erik Stockdale. 

The wetland science-hydrogeology drama even encompassed the Attorney General's (AG) Office in 2012. A state legislator asked the AG to provide a legal perspective on the controversy. After months of waiting, we were finally treated to an unofficial AG opinion that essentially said nothing, and it placed the onus back on the Geology Board to resolve the dispute. While this was happening, public records requests to the Geology Board turned up evidence that Geology Board staff members (not the Board members themselves, but staff) may have been working all along to protect wetland scientists from scrutiny by the Geology Board. Emails between staff members and prominent wetland scientists suggested a very cozy relationship that raised suspicions.

Meanwhile, back here in San Juan County, every effort was being made by CAO supporters to discredit hydrogeologists and develop wording for "qualified professional" in the CAOs that would exclude hydrogeologists from ever being involved in wetland delineations.

In short, it's been a crazy year full of maneuvering, but the relevant arguments before the Geology Board have boiled down to the following: 
  • Hydrogeologists claim that wetlands are waters of the U.S. (or State) and hydrogeology is the science dealing with the occurrence and distribution of the waters of the earth. Therefore, wetland delineation is hydrogeology. Moreover, hydrogeologists claim that "wetland scientists" have become involved in many hydrogeological activities not directly related to wetland delineation such as stream studies (e.g., geomorphology) and groundwater investigations.
  • Wetland scientists argue that they are following procedures specified by State law (i.e., the wetland delineation manual), and their "science" deals only with shallow groundwater and other activities confined to the upper meter of the earth. As such, it is not geology/hydrogeology. Also, wetland scientists argue that their science is multi-disciplinary, involving plants and soil science, and is therefore not geology/hydrogeology.
On December 20, the Washington Geology Board weighed in with a new policy regarding the practice of wetland science and hydrogeology. Essentially, the Board agreed with the hydrogeologists; however, the Board allowed a limited carve out from the geology licensing laws for qualified wetland professionals who only make observations and apply those observations per the checklists referenced in State law.

In short, wetland scientists can do nothing more than make observations for the purpose of completing the wetland delineation checklists. Wetland scientists cannot offer interpretations of geochemical conditions or water tables. They cannot evaluate or identify streams, geomorphology, or conduct shallow groundwater investigations. The Geology Board, it seems, considers the checklist-based delineation activities to be non-professional activity -- it's technician-level box-checking work. Indications are that the Board thinks the wetland delineation methodology (as it relates to geochemistry and hydrology) is such a poor methodology that, like water witching/dowsing, the Board cannot bring itself to regulate it as the science of geology/hydrogeology. Therefore, the Board will allow delineation checklisting to survive under a very limited "exemption" from the geology licensing laws because such activities are so far beyond the pale of real science and because the checklist activities are enshrined in State law.

However, the Board went on to clarify that anything beyond checklisting is the practice of hydrogeology, and authentic hydrogeology informs the wetland delineation process.
The interpretation and application of hydrogeologic data, beyond the observation of shallow groundwater, used to inform the multidisciplinary wetland delineation process is included in the practice of hydrogeology as adopted by state law (RCW 18.220 and WAC 308-15).
You can read the entire Board policy here. This new policy means that hydrogeologists cannot be excluded from practicing in wetlands, and hydrogeologists can use any of their normal professional methods to investigate and make interpretations relevant to wetland delineations. As professionals subject to Board review, hydrogeologists are not restricted to using delineation checklists and checklist methods to draw conclusions related to hydrology and hydro-geochemical conditions in wetlands, which are two conditions precedent to wetland occurrence.

The bottom line is that the work of licensed professionals (hydrogeologists) trumps the box-checking activities of technicians (wetland scientists). For both scientific integrity and individual rights, this was one of the most significant victories of 2012.


  1. Does the Council know about this? Where does this put Adamus and his opinions? Doesn't this put into question many of the decisions made by the Council? ALL of the decisions having to do with wetlands?

  2. No, I don't believe they do know about it, and of course, we have a new Council. Yes, in my opinion, this is yet one more circumstance that undermines Adamus and the entire CAO process.

  3. So Janet Alderton's cookie-sheet "science" is no longer the best available?

  4. To paraphrase a defense proffered by Dr. Adamus whenever his nonsensical "science" was challenged, Alderton might say, "It's not perfect but it's the best available."

    More to the point, however, it is not science. It's the best available nonsense.

  5. It seems like the very least the new Council can do is to review the bloated monstrosity the last Council just passed (ironically only a few days before the Geology Board made its ruling).

    The new CAO needs to consistent with the Geology Board's licensing rule, and they need be incorporated right away in the definitions relating to who can perform scientifically supported wetland assessment.

    Moreover, any permits at issue in recent years where adverse planning decisions were made on the basis water-witcher opinion should be immediately reviewed.

    The new Council needs to come up to speed that scientific assessment of wetlands for permitting purposes cannot be performed by unlicensed practitioners.

  6. I don't believe it is OK to tinker with the CAO just passed by a lame duck Council.

    Have the fortitude to throw the whole pile of excrement where it belongs, pull the chain.

    Do a quick and easy update of the old working CAO like Friday Harbor did and call it good.

    Let the fools at FOSJ and the DOE attack it all they want. Tough.

  7. What kind of license do "wetlands delineators get? What degrees are required? What supervision or experience? Someone told me that anyone could become a wetlands delineator with a few days of training. Surely, you need a science degree and some other relevant education?

  8. The short answer to Valjean is "No, you don't need a science degree or some other relevant education."

    And many/most do not.

    All you need is a few hundred bucks for a training course, and most importantly (from my perspective), all you really need is to roll over and do whatever Ecology or the other powers-that-be want you to do. That's the most important qualification.

  9. It's interesting to see how many hits this post has received from Olympia. What do our government officials do all day?

  10. Oh, now you've done it. Half of Ecology (and that's thousands of "living wage" paychecks) will be a-twitter about this all week. So the question for today's debate is: Is it better that the upper management of Ecology convene multi-party e-mail chains and prepare PowerPoints and press releases over a blog post, or go back to work making taxpayers miserable?

  11. To draw conclusions related to hydrology and hydro-geochemical conditions in wetlands, which are two conditions precedent to wetland occurrence, wetland scientists are all wet. Wetland scientists may "observe" groundwater conditions in the upper meter of the earth, but cannot make conclusions or recommendations relating to groundwater occurrence. The newly created Board policy accomplishes two major steps: (1) the "carve out" for Wetland Scientists hopefully is just enough rope for WS to hang themselves, and (2) the policy is a postive first step to expose what the general public receives for their money from a "wetland scientist" - possibly a liberal arts major or no major at all, not to mention no insurance for malpractice. Hopefully when the "political" forces are in alignment with sound science, in retrospect the newly created policy will be the first step for exposing the pseudo science practiced by 40-hour certified "wetland scientists" that make decisions affecting millions of dollars of property in the State of Washington.

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