Rebekah: Rob, tell me about your background related to rail and the projects you’ve worked on where critical areas - wetlands, steep slopes, or habitat required special monitoring?
Rob: I have been working on rail-related issues since 1992 when the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe hired me as a Water Quality Specialist/Fisheries Biologist. One of my jobs was to document impacts from railway operations on fisheries and habitats in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties in Washington. We partnered with King County METRO at the time to monitor water quality at long-term water quality and stream gaging sites to document changes over time along major stream crossing and along streams and rivers. The long-term sites had been sampled since 1972, so we had some good background for those locations. Depending on the long-term data trends with water quality samples, stream gaging information, and macroinvertebrates, we worked on potential solutions or projects to help improve fish and wildlife habitat within the Burlington Northern Railroad corridor. In Cumberland, Washington, the BN railroad operations at a gravel quarry impacted an isolated sub-population of late spawning coho salmon that required additional 24-hour stormwater sampling with ISCO and other samplers and regular fish spawning surveys and habitat analysis. The monitoring data also helped us respond to emergencies or potential problems with water quality or stream flows in these locations. We identified projects through these monitoring efforts to address slope instability, fish habitat degradation, fish passage, and water quality improvement. Some of the information also was used for negotiations with the Tribe and BNRR to reduce impacts to natural resources and impacts in the Tribal Usual, and Accustomed Areas. I have also been involved in slope stability studies using long-term inclinometer installations and long-term groundwater monitoring to develop long-term trends and potential mitigation.
Rebekah: What are some of the strategies you have used for mitigation sites for both the public conception and the review agencies (local, State, and Federal)?
Rob: I have worked to mitigate impacts from small private landowner sites to very large road or rail corridor projects with multiple streams, rivers, and wetlands impacted. We try to minimize impacts if possible first, but if we have to mitigate for unavoidable impacts, then there are several strategies that come into play. I have been doing this so long that I have seen many mitigation projects fail and have also seen a lot of successful projects as well, which help to evaluate potential solutions or sites. Once the impacts are clearly defined based on alternatives analysis and agreement with the review agencies on what the final mitigation or habitat needs to be replaced, then the potential mitigation for those specific habitat functions and values can be sought. Depending on the mitigation required, this may be done on or off-site. I have utilized mitigation banks, partnered mitigation to get the maximum habitat benefit from a site, and have partnered with other agencies to combine mitigation efforts and get a larger project subsidized with funding to make that effort stronger. For example, for the City of Seattle Northgate Pedestrian Bridge crossing at Northgate, we worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Fish, and Wildlife, and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe to help locate mitigation sites within the City of Seattle to combine potential mitigation to maximize habitat improvements at one location rather than several small mitigation areas.
Rebekah: What is your advice for making sure a site stays in compliance and makes it easier on the auditing agencies?
Rob: Lack of maintenance is something that causes many mitigation sites to fail. If the plantings are not watered properly, weeded, and maintained to keep invasive vegetation and potential browse or vandalism down, then the whole point of the mitigation is lost or potentially wasted. These mitigation sites are to replace impacted wetlands and streams, so they should maintain the same function and values for fish and wildlife as they were intended to. Some of the mitigation goes in, and that box is checked, but the long-term success of that mitigation site has to have some maintenance for several years. The mitigation site is supposed to be monitored as well to make sure the function and values that are to be replaced are working. I have seen too many mitigation sites go in to replace wetland function, for example, and over time the hydrology has changed, and that function is lost or not working as originally planned. If the site was monitored and maintained, some of those issues that cause the failure may be addressed before the loss of the function and value of that mitigation or changes can be made to address those issues. Having clear performance measures and milestones during a mitigation monitoring program also makes it easier for the regulatory agencies to know that the site is still performing as intended.
Rebekah: Lastly, what would you recommend to keep the team solution-focused when the site conditions are changing and how the team can support the Contractor?
Rob: Mitigation is not cheap but necessary if you have to impact natural resources to build the project. In order to be able to permit and build the project, this mitigation has to be successful, or it will cost more to redo or renegotiate with the regulatory agencies. If you approach each of these mitigation sites as a team and measure success together with the same performance measures and milestones, it makes it harder to see things fail, and the ownership of the success of the work is the teams. Site conditions change, and some of the work may not come out as planned, but if you have the same goal or the attitude that it is us against the project, that seems to work well. Most of the time, my role is to offer suggestions or voice concerns to reduce risk to the success of the mitigation work, but it is really up to the Contractor to build or construct something according to their contract, so it is crucial to be part of the team and work with them to build this thing to be the most successful, long-lasting investment in the natural resources that we have to create or improve to make up for the project impacts.