Freshwater Wetlands Permitting

UPDATE: The Department filed new Rules and Regulations for the Administration and Enforcement of the Freshwater Wetlands Act (250-RICR-150-15-3) that took effect July 1, 2022. These Part 3 Rules were recently amended to eliminate the additional application fee associated with variance requests. Learn more about the new rules

What are freshwater wetlands?

Freshwater wetlands are areas that are flooded or that have water at or near the surface for part of most growing seasons. They commonly occur between uplands and water bodies; however, many freshwater wetlands stand alone and are surrounded by upland. Freshwater wetlands are widespread throughout Rhode Island. Swamps, marshes, bogs, ponds, rivers, and streams are considered wetlands in Rhode Island as are other smaller areas and certain adjacent areas known as perimeter wetlands, riverbank wetlands, and floodplain. People often ask about lakes. Rhode Island’s lakes are freshwater wetlands, and in regulatory terms they fall within the definition of pond.

Why are freshwater wetlands regulated?

Freshwater wetlands perform functions and provide values that are vital to people and the environment. Wetlands reduce flood and storm damages by temporarily holding rain water and surface water, thereby protecting property and structures. They protect and improve water quality; they provide important fish and wildlife habitat contributing to Rhode Island’s biodiversity; and they support hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and other recreational activities that contribute revenue to Rhode Island's economy. All of these functions and services contribute to a healthy and stable environment and economy.

How are freshwater wetlands regulated in RI?

Understanding the importance of wetlands, in July, 1971, the Rhode Island legislators passed the Rhode Island Freshwater Wetlands Act and authorized the Department of Environmental Management to preserve and regulate the freshwater wetlands of the state for the public benefits that they provide. “Freshwater wetlands in the vicinity of the coast” are regulated by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

The Department's Freshwater Wetlands Program is staffed by professional scientists and engineers who routinely assist property owners and their consultants to understand the Rules and Regulations and the general application requirements described in 250-RICR-150-15-1.7 (former Rule 7.00). Property owners who propose projects or activities in or near freshwater wetlands must first obtain a permit from the Department. There are eleven wetlands application types summarized in 250-RICR-150-15-1.5 (former Rule 5.00), and the type of application required depends on the nature of the request. The Request for Preliminary Determination is the most common application type and it is appropriate for applicants seeking an insignificant alteration permit. The Department maintains an online searchable database of prior wetland decisions to assist in determining if there is already a file and any specific information pertaining to a property.

Note: New DEM rules and regulations governing protection of freshwater wetlands will take effect on July 1, 2022. More information on the changes is available at here.

The Program, supported by application fees and state general funds, generally completes 500 to 600 application decisions a year, although those numbers are currently depressed. The Program implements avoidance and minimization requirements thereby keeping direct wetland losses to a minimum. For some limited activities - identified in 250-RICR-150-15-1.6 (former Rule 6.00) as Exempt Activities - a property owner may proceed without a written permit provided all of the protective conditions in 250-RICR-150-15-1.6 are met.

Additional Resources