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EPA Core Elements Framework and Wetland Program Plans

In 2008 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed guidance to assist Tribes (and States) in building strong wetland programs. A foundation of EPA’s Enhancing State and Tribal Programs Initiative (ESTP) is the Core Elements Framework (CEF). Drafted with state and tribal input, this document describes four core program elements (monitoring and assessment, regulatory activities, wetland restoration and protection, and water quality standards for wetlands) that provide a comprehensive approach to wetland program-building activities. The CEF was updated in 2023 and is available to download here.

The CEF is intended to be fairly comprehensive so that States and Tribes can choose from an array of actions that are best suited to their goals and resources. The CEF is designed as a menu of activities that States and Tribes can draw from to design their own roadmap towards a more comprehensive wetland program. States and Tribes will implement the CEF depending on their individual program goals and available resources. EPA recommends that States and Tribes consult the CEF in identifying goals and next steps for program development. EPA Regional Offices will use the CEF as a basis for program development discussions with States and Tribes.

The Wetland Program Development Grants (WPDG) are EPA's primary source of financial support for tribal (and state) wetland programs. Wetland Program Development Grant Requests for Proposals reference the CEF and ask that proposals describe how the project links with one or more program development actions in the CEF. WPDGs are discussed further here.

Developing Wetland Program Plans [Back to top]

Wetland Program Plans document a Tribe’s wetland program goals, a description of planned actions, and an implementation schedule. The planned current and future actions must be consistent with the Core Elements Framework. Development of a WPP is voluntary and not required by EPA. However, the benefits of developing a WPP include:

  • Assists strategic thinking about your community’s needs to build your wetland program over several years
  • Facilitates discussion and understanding between the EPA and your Tribe, which helps the EPA more effectively provide needed technical assistance
  • Provides a useful communication tool for sharing your wetland program’s goals and accomplishments with the community

In addition to the benefits discussed above, an advantage of having an approved WPP is the ability to apply for Wetland Program Development Grants (WPDGs) under Track One, which often has more funding available. Under Track One, Tribes can also apply for WPDGs to develop a WPP.

WPPs typically cover a 3- to 6-year timeframe. While WPPs have to be consistent with the Core Elements Framework, a WPP does not have to include all four of the Core Elements.

NAWM Resources on WPPs:

FAQs: Tribal Wetland Program Plans

Sample General Outline for a Wetland Program Plan

Webinar Recording: Getting Started with Tribal Wetland Plans, September 29, 2022 

Webinar Recording: Protecting Waters and Wetlands in Indian Country: An Overview and Case Studies from EPA’s New Tribal Wetland Program Guide, December 15, 2022

Webinar Recording: Developing Your Tribal Wetland Program, February 16, 2023

NAWM’s webpage on the EPA Core Elements Framework

NAWM’s webpage on Wetland Program Plans, which includes links to Tribal Wetland Program Plans and the 2013 Wetland Program Plan Handbook

Other Useful Resources on WPPs:

EPA’s 2022 guide: Protecting Waters and Wetlands in Indian Country: A Guide for Developing Tribal Wetland Management Programs

Examples of EPA-approved State and Tribal Wetland Program Plans

EPA’s webpage on Developing a State or Tribal Wetland Program Plan

EPA Regional Wetland Contacts

The United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET) hosted Wetland Program Plan Writing Workshops in 2020 and 2021. Several resources from the workshops are available on their website.

The Four Core Elements [Back to top]

The following sections provide an overview of each of the four core elements of a wetland program, along with relevant examples from tribal wetland programs and links to training resources, webinar recordings, and more information. Additional resources on each of the core elements can be found on NAWM’s webpage on the EPA Core Elements Framework.

Monitoring & Assessment: Document and track changes in acreage and conditions

Wetland monitoring and assessment programs allow Tribes to understand the baseline extent and condition of wetlands and better manage and protect these resources. Over time, this data can be used to observe trends and track changes in wetlands. When beginning a wetland program, tribal communities may choose to start with the monitoring and assessment core element as a way to establish what wetland resources they are managing. Development of a wetland monitoring and assessment program can require thinking about a program’s goals and objectives, how to use and protect the data that will be collected, and ways to incorporate indigenous/traditional ecological knowledges into resource management. This report provides “best practices” or “lessons learned” for developing a wetland monitoring and assessment program and information on incorporating cultural relevance into a wetland program. 

Wetland monitoring and assessment programs can include activities such as:

  • Identifying and mapping the extent of wetlands
  • Determining existing wetland conditions or functions
  • Measuring physical and chemical properties of wetlands
  • Assessing the biodiversity of wetlands and presence of rare, endangered, or culturally significant species

Wetland monitoring and assessment activities can be divided into three levels:

  • Level 1 “Landscape Assessment” relies on coarse, landscape-scale inventory information, typically gathered through remote sensing.
  • Level 2 “Rapid Assessment” occurs at the specific wetland site scale using relatively simple, rapid protocols.
  • Level 3 “Intensive Site Assessment” uses intensive research-derived, multi-metric indices to collect detailed information about how a wetland is functioning.

A Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) is required for EPA-funded projects that involve surface or groundwater monitoring and/or the collection and analysis of water samples. A QAPP is a project-specific plan that lays out the type and quality of environmental data to be collected, including the quality assurance and quality control measures that will be used to ensure data quality. EPA must approve of a QAPP before the project can begin.

Resources for preparing a QAPP:

Examples of Tribal Monitoring and Assessment Programs

During a webinar held on April 20, 2023 titled Monitoring and Assessment: Data Collection and Applications for Tribal Wetland Programs, three tribal wetland staff shared their programs’ approaches to wetland monitoring and assessment. Some highlights from this presentation include the following:

  • The Tulalip Tribes of Washington follow the EPA’s 3-level approach described above and use standardized regional methods that have been modified or created for Tribe-specific needs, including qualitative and quantitative field assessments at multiple sites annually. PowerPoint Presentation
  • At the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, the Chippewa Cree Tribe monitors sweetgrass, a plant with significant cultural value, and analyzes connections between sweetgrass monitoring data and changing climatic conditions. PowerPoint Presentation
  • The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa conducted a Pilot Study in 2020 to collect a range of wetland data and identify core wetland quality indicators for subsequent monitoring efforts. PowerPoint Presentation

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) Wetland Program conducts wetland monitoring and assessment in one of each of the Flathead Indian Reservation’s seven watersheds every year that funding is available. The program’s QAPP gives an overview of the program’s monitoring and assessment work (including data collection and analysis for at least 20 wetland sites each year), as well as land cover change analyses and mapping, mapping of noxious weeks, and wetland and riparian training, education, and outreach activities. The CSKT Wetland Program compiles a Wetland Site Assessment and Monitoring report for each watershed sampled; CSKT has provided an example of a monitoring report for one site showing the results of assessments conducted at Spring Creek in the Jocko River Watershed.


NAWM Resources:  EPA Resources:

Report: Best Practices Report for Building Effective and Culturally Relevant Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Programs

Wetland Functional Assessment FAQs

NAWM webpage on Monitoring and Assessment

Webinar recording: Monitoring and Assessment: Data Collection and Applications for Tribal Wetland Programs, April 20, 2023

Webinar recording: Advancing Tribal Wetland Programs Through Innovations in Monitoring & Assessment, December 1, 2020

Webinar recording: Preparing Quality Assurance Project Plans for Your Tribal Wetland Program, November 2, 2023

EPA webpage on Wetlands Monitoring and Assessment

Quality Assurance Project Plan Development Tool

Contact information for EPA Quality Assurance Managers (QAMs) (including Regional QAMs)


Regulations: Avoid or minimize loss and set guidelines for mitigation

Regulatory programs are developed to avoid or minimize losses to aquatic resources or set guidelines for mitigation. Such programs can operate under federal law (Clean Water Act §404 or §401) or under tribal or state laws or regulations.

Examples of Tribal Regulations

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ (CSKT) have two Tribal ordinances that protect wetlands and aquatic resources. The CSKT Aquatic Lands Conservation Ordinance (No. 87-A), which establishes a permitting program to “prevent the degradation of Reservation waters and aquatic lands by regulating construction or installation of projects upon aquatic lands whenever such project may cause erosion, sedimentation, or other disturbances adversely affecting the quality of Reservation waters and aquatic lands.” The CSKT Cultural Waterways Ordinance (No. 113-A) defines a cultural waterway as “a waterway the Tribes have determined is in need of protection, and possibly restoration, because it possesses or could possess the physical, spiritual, and environmental resources and conditions necessary for the continuance of cultural practices and activities.” The ordinance further provides for a process to designate Cultural Waterways and for development of management plans and regulations to provide cultural and environmental protection of the designated waterways.


NAWM Resources:  EPA Resources:

FAQs: Treatment as a State (TAS) for Clean Water Act Programs

FAQs: Water Quality Standards and the Clean Water Act

FAQs: Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification

FAQs: Clean Water Act Section 404 Program for Dredged or Fill Material 

NAWM webpage on Regulations                                                                                                            

EPA webpage on Permit Program under CWA Section 404

EPA webpage on Overview of CWA Section 401 Certification

EPA webpage on Implementing Clean Water Act Programs in Indian Country

EPA webpage on Tribal Assumption of Federal Laws - Treatment as a State (TAS)


Water Quality Standards for Wetlands: Set benchmarks for wetland conditions

Water quality standards (WQS) for wetlands protect a Tribe’s wetlands and/or prevent degradation. In 2022, the National Tribal Water Council released A Guidebook for Developing Tribal Water Quality Standards to assist Tribes in developing WQS. A WQS has three key components:

  • Designated uses: narrative goals for a waterbody, such as recreation and protection of aquatic life.
  • Criteria: numeric or narrative pollutant levels that are consistent with protecting the designated use.
  • Anti-degradation policy: protects existing uses and high-quality waters.

Wetland-specific WQS may differ in criteria from WQS for streams or lakes and can provide robust protection for wetlands and their functions.

Example of Tribal WQS for Wetlands

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s wetland program used EPA’s template tool (linked below) to develop narrative wetland WQS. Based on an understanding of existing wetland functions, designated uses for wetlands were identified. These designated uses include baseflow discharge and groundwater recharge, flood flow attenuation, recreation, plant and animal diversity and abundance, and cultural opportunities. The WQS for Wetlands were approved by both the Tribal Council and EPA and are included in the Tribe’s WQS Ordinance, which is available here.


NAWM Resources:  EPA Resources:

FAQs: Water Quality Standards and the Clean Water Act

NAWM webpage on Water Quality Standards for Wetlands                                            

EPA Overview of Wetland Water Quality Standards

EPA Templates for Developing Wetland Water Quality Standards

Water Quality Standards  Tools for Tribes


Voluntary Restoration & Protection: Increase wetlands acreage and quality

Voluntary restoration and protection of wetlands refers to activities that are not required by statutes or regulations. Voluntary projects and programs can protect wetlands while also providing opportunities to build partnerships, share data, pool resources among agencies and organizations, and educate the public about the value of wetlands and water resources. This fact sheet provides examples of planned restoration and protection-related activities from the WPPs for two tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin. The fact sheet also provides a list of other tribes that address voluntary restoration and protection in their WPPs.


NAWM Resources:  EPA Resources:

Examples of Voluntary Restoration and Protection Activities from WPPS

NAWM webpage on Voluntary Restoration & Protection

Voluntary Wetland Program Development: How States and Tribes Can Support Long-Term Wetland Protection & Restoration

NAWM’s Restoration Publications

EPA webpage on Developing a Voluntary Restoration and Protection Program for Wetlands

Wetlands Restoration Definitions and Distinctions

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