Small Business Spotlight | Wetlands Studies and Solutions, Inc.
What may appear to the untrained eye as commonplace swamps are actually important wetlands that serve as rich habitats for “breeding and feeding” thousands of unique plants and animals.
Wetlands are important for a number of reasons, says Bob Kerr, director of the Hampton Roads Division of Wetlands Studies and Solutions, Inc. (WSSI). Along with environmental program managers Mark McElroy and Curtis Hickman, Kerr leads a team of a dozen scientists, engineers and other specialists at the local office of the leading environmental and cultural resources consulting firm in the mid-Atlantic region. WSSI, located in Virginia Beach, is one of five offices across the state, and several locations in Maryland, Florida and North Carolina. The company, founded in 1991, has a staff of more than 200 people.
“Wetlands help filter surface and groundwater and buffer erosion along coastlines,” Kerr says. “They store floodwaters naturally, so they help alleviate flooding.” Wetlands also serve as large sponges that soak up carbon, phosphorus and other nutrients that are harmful to the environment, “and some of them hold and bind up hazardous, heavy metals.”
Wetlands that affect the biological, physical or chemical characteristics of major bodies of water have been protected by the federal government since the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. This law brought waters back to life by turning rivers, lakes and marshes from dumping grounds into healthy waterways again. Virginia and several other states have their own water protection legislation, expanding protection to state waters.
“Our experts work with both the public and private sectors to provide innovative solutions to balance environmental protection and land use goals,” Kerr says. Meeting the demands of the challenging federal and state regulations requires specific expertise in the field.
The Coastal Virginia region has an abundance of wetlands, many of which would surprise people, he says. Wetlands have several distinct characteristics, and the federal definition of wetlands requires that they meet technical criteria in three areas: groundwater levels, a particular soil chemistry (anaerobic soils) and a prevalence of wetland plants. “If you dig a hole in the ground in many areas of Hampton Roads, you’ll find groundwater within a foot of the surface at certain times of the year and you’ll find an assemblage of plants that might be common to the average person, such as red maple, loblolly, holly and pine trees and blueberry, but which in many circumstances may be indications that a wetland exists because these plants occur in environments with hydric soils. Ultimately these areas may be subject to regulation,” Kerr explains.
WSSI not only performs wetlands consulting, it also advises organizations on issues such as threatened and endangered species of plants and animals, environmental compliance, archaeological/cultural resources, stormwater management and hazardous materials. The company assists clients in obtaining local, state and federal permits for land developers, builders and public works agencies to balance environmental protection and land use goals. It also prepares environmental impact statements in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
WSSI will, if necessary, supervise the remediation of any problems found during an assessment. This may include creating wetlands in areas where they didn’t previously exist and making them function as optimally as possible. Often this is accomplished through the applicant purchasing “wetland mitigation credits” from mitigation banks created by third parties.
The company has worked on governmental projects including conducting a statewide culvert inventory and condition assessment for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), stream restoration at Arlington National Cemetery and environmental studies for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs.
WSSI has won many awards and accolades for its work, including the David Pearson Award for the City of Virginia Beach Mill Dam Creek stream restoration project. The company restored the stream to help reduce pollutant loads and connect the stream back to its floodplain.