Vernal Pool Certification, Massachusetts

A typical vernal pool, as seen in Amherst, Mass. (Source: US Forest Service)

Note: For context this article was originally written in 2016. Since that time we have one of the best years for precipitation in recent history.

As the summer winds down we leave a season of marked drought, one of the worst in years. This has proven especially difficult for many of the Commonwealth’s farmers, especially those growing water intensive crops such as corn, peas, or asparagus. However, this begs the question how will our wildlife be affected in the short-term? Unless we see significant precipitation this winter, one of the most visibly affected habitats will be our vernal pools.

So what exactly makes a vernal pool? There are many fine differences in the exact definition both for academic and legal purposes, however the American Heritage® Scientific Dictionary defines one as-

A seasonal body of standing water that typically forms in the spring from melting snow and other runoff, [which] dries out completely in the hotter months of summer, and often refills in the autumn. Vernal pools range from broad, heavily vegetated lowland bodies to smaller, isolated upland bodies with little permanent vegetation. They are free of fish and provide important breeding habitat for many terrestrial or semiaquatic species such as frogs, salamanders, and turtles.

Vernal pools serve as incubators for many species that we often think of as lake or pond dwellers, and for this reason they were often overlooked in the past. While wetlands are legally protected habitats, until recently, vernal pools remained especially vulnerable to development due to their ephemeral nature. Without the proper diagnostic checks in the dry summer months, it would be easy to mistaken such a key natural resource with little more than a pile of undecomposed leaves from the previous season. However while many may find standing water a public hazard in its own right, due to mosquitos among other things, without these habitats we would see significantly lower numbers of frogs, toads, and salamanders, all species that eat insect larvae and reduce some of their risk to crops.

Thanks to the efforts of activists and regulatory agencies, many states have taken extra steps to ensure that these bodies of water remain protected. Some, including Massachusetts, have released a series of additional guidelines which municipal employees and volunteers can use to document and mark these, for future protection. Below I have taken the guidelines of Massachusetts, and in future installments will compare them with New Jersey’s and Maine’s programs to note where they may exceed or lack pertinent details to demonstrating each government’s definition of a vernal pool.

Established in 1987, Massachusetts has a robust certification program, with more than 7000 vernal pools documented and approved through a clear set of guidelines which can be found on the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program’s (NHESP) website. There are no professional requirements for submitted a documented vernal pool for review, encouraging all citizen-scientists following these guidelines to document certified vernal pools (CVPs) and submit them to the NHESP.

The requirements are simple- physical and biological features must be documented within 3 years prior to their submission. Biological features can be documented with photos, videos, or audio of clear quality. In addition to this, physical criteria also includes proper mapping of the location using USGS topographic maps, MassGIS orthophotos, and one additional map either sketched, taken with GPS lat/long coordinates, documented by an assessor, or taken by a professional survey.

The biological criteria can be documented with two methods, collecting evidence for one or more obligate species or two or more facultative species-

Criteria for the obligate and facultative species methods of certified vernal pool documentation


Once this process is complete, the documentation is approved by the NHESP and sent to local DEP offices, municipal offices, and affected property owners. While the program has achieved its aims of protecting vernal pools, in future posts I will delve into further detail about how its ease of approval poses challenges for abuse of the statute in different communities of varying wealth and development.