Last week, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee of the New Hampshire Senate heard testimony on SB 19, a bill designed to modify the definition of “prime wetland” under RSA 482-A:15. Importantly, the bill would reserve “prime wetland” designation – and the protections that go with it – for wetlands of “5 acres or more” in size. Opponents of the bill cautioned against using size as a criteria for evaluating the significance of wetlands, noting that smaller wetlands can perform the same functions as larger ones.
If this change in definition were to be made retroactive, areas now designated as prime wetlands could lose their protected status. Barrington, Brentwood, Exeter, Hampton Falls, Newington, Newmarket, and Northwood have all designated “prime wetlands” using the current definition of the term. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services currently regulates all development within 100 feet of a prime wetland.
The need for wetland protection is nicely summarized by the purpose statement of RSA 482-A:
It is found to be for the public good and welfare of this state to protect and preserve its submerged lands under tidal and fresh waters and its wetlands, (both salt water and fresh-water), as herein defined, from despoliation and unregulated alteration, because such despoliation or unregulated alteration will adversely affect the value of such areas as sources of nutrients for finfish, crustacea, shellfish and wildlife of significant value, will damage or destroy habitats and reproduction areas for plants, fish and wildlife of importance, will eliminate, depreciate or obstruct the commerce, recreation and aesthetic enjoyment of the public, will be detrimental to adequate groundwater levels, will adversely affect stream channels and their ability to handle the runoff of waters, will disturb and reduce the natural ability of wetlands to absorb flood waters and silt, thus increasing general flood damage and the silting of open water channels, and will otherwise adversely affect the interests of the general public.