US Army Corps of Engineers
Wetlands Delineation Manual



1. Recognizing the potential for continued or accelerated degradation of the Nation's waters, the US Congress enacted the Clean Water Act (hereafter referred to as the Act), formerly known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1344). The objective of the Act is to maintain and restore the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the United States. Section 404 of the Act authorizes the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Chief of Engineers, to issue permits for the discharge of dredged or fill material into the waters of the United States, including wetlands.

Purpose and Objectives


2. The purpose of this manual is to provide users with guidelines and methods to determine whether an area is a wetland for purposes of Section 404 of the Act.


3. Specific objectives of the manual are to:

a. Present technical guidelines for identifying wetlands and distinguishing them from aquatic habitats and other nonwetlands. [Definitions of terms used in this manual are presented in the Glossary Appendix A.]
b. Provide methods for applying the technical guidelines.
c. Provide supporting information useful in applying the technical guidelines.


4. This manual is limited in scope to wetlands that are a subset of "waters of the United States" and thus subject to Section 404. The term "waters of the United States" has broad meaning and incorporates both deep-water aquatic habitats and special aquatic sites, including wetlands (Federal Register 1982), as follows:

a. The territorial seas with respect to the discharge of fill material.
b. Coastal and inland waters, lakes, rivers, and streams that are navigable waters of the United States, including their adjacent wetlands.
c. Tributaries to navigable waters of the United States, including adjacent wetlands.
d. Interstate waters and their tributaries, including adjacent wetlands.
e. All others waters of the United States not identified above, such as isolated wetlands and lakes, intermittent streams, prairie potholes, and other waters that are not a part of a tributary system to interstate waters or navigable waters of the United States, the degradation or destruction of which could affect interstate commerce.

Determination that a water body or wetland is subject to interstate commerce and therefore is a "water of the United States" shall be made independently of procedures described in this manual.

Special aquatic sites

5. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies six categories of special aquatic sites in their Section 404 b.(I) guidelines (Federal Register 1980), including:

a. Sanctuaries and refuges.
b. Wetlands.
c. Mudflats.
d. Vegetated shallows.
e. Coral reefs.
f. Riffle and pool complexes.

Although all of these special aquatic sites are subject to provisions of the Clean Water Act, this manual considers only wetlands. By definition (see paragraph 26a), wetlands are vegetated. Thus, unvegetated special aquatic sites (e.g. mudflats lacking macrophytic vegetation) are not covered in this manual.

Relationship to wetland classification systems

6. The technical guideline for wetlands does not constitute a classification system. It only provides a basis for determining whether a given area is a wetland for purposes of Section 404, without attempting to classify it by wetland type.

7. Consideration should be given to the relationship between the technical guideline for wetlands and the classification system developed for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), US Department of the Interior, by Cowardin et al. (1979). The FWS classification system was developed as a basis for identifying, classifying, and mapping wetlands, other special aquatic sites, and deepwater aquatic habitats. Using this classification system, the National Wetland Inventory (NWI) is mapping the wetlands, other special aquatic sites, and deepwater aquatic habitats of the United States, and is also developing both a list of plant species that occur in wetlands and an associated plant database. These products should contribute significantly to application of the technical guideline for wetlands. The technical guideline for wetlands as presented in the manual includes most, but not all, wetlands identified in the FWS system. The difference is due to two principal factors:

a. The FWS system includes all categories of special aquatic sites identified in the EPA Section 404 b.(I) guidelines. All other special aquatic sites are clearly within the purview of Section 404; thus, special methods for their delineation are unnecessary.
b. The FWS system requires that a positive indicator of wetlands be present for any one of the three parameters, while the technical guideline for wetlands requires that a positive wetland indicator be present for each parameter (vegetation, soils, and hydrology), except in limited instances identified in the manual.


8. This manual consists of four parts and four appendices. PART I presents the background, purpose and objectives, scope, organization, and use of the manual.

9. PART II focuses on the technical guideline for wetlands, and stresses the need for considering all three parameters (vegetation, soils, and hydrology) when making wetland determinations. Since wetlands occur in an intermediate position along the hydrologic gradient, comparative technical guidelines are also presented for deepwater aquatic sites and nonwetlands.

10. PART III contains general information on hydrophytic vegetation, hydric soils, and wetland hydrology. Positive wetland indicators of each parameter are included.

11. PART IV, which presents methods for applying the technical guideline for wetlands, is arranged in a format that leads to a logical determination of whether a given area is a wetlands Section A contains general information related to application of methods. Section B outlines preliminary data-gathering efforts. Section C discusses two approaches (routine and comprehensive) for making wetland determinations and presents criteria for deciding the correct approach to use. Sections D and E describe detailed procedures for making routine and comprehensive determinations, respectively. The basic procedures are described in a series of steps that lead to a wetland determination.

12. The manual also describes (PART IV, Section F) methods for delineating wetlands in which the vegetation, soils, and/or hydrology have been altered by recent human activities or natural events, as discussed below:

a. The definition of wetlands (paragraph 26a) contains the phrase plunder normal circumstances, which was included because there are instances in which the vegetation in a wetland has been inadvertently or purposely removed or altered as a result of recent natural events or human activities. Other examples of human alterations that may affect wetlands are draining, ditching, levees, deposition of fill, irrigation, and impoundments. When such activities occur, an area may fail to meet the diagnostic criteria for a wetlands Likewise, positive hydric soil indicators may be absent in some recently created wetlands. In such cases, an alternative method must be employed in making wetland determinations.
b. Natural events may also result in sufficient modification of an area that indicators of one or more wetland parameters are absent. For example, changes in river course may significantly alter hydrology, or beaver dams may create new wetland areas that lack hydric soil conditions. Catastrophic events (e.g. fires, avalanches, mudslides, and volcanic activities) may also alter or destroy wetland indicators on a site.

Such atypical situations occur throughout the United States, and all of these cannot be identified in this manual.

13. Certain wetland types, under the extremes of normal circumstances, may not always meet all the wetland criteria defined in the manual. Examples include prairie potholes during drought years and seasonal wetlands that may lack hydrophytic vegetation during the dry season. Such areas are discussed in PART IV, Section G, and guidance is provided for making wetland determinations in these areas. However, such wetland areas may warrant additional research to refine methods for their delineation.

14. Appendix A is a glossary of technical terms used in the manual. Definitions of some terms were taken from other technical sources, but most terms are defined according to the manner in which they are used in the manual.

15. Data forms for methods presented in PART IV are included in Appendix B. Examples of completed data forms are also provided.

16. Supporting information is presented in Appendices C and D. Appendix C contains lists of plant species that occur in wetlands. Section 1 consists of regional lists developed by a Federal interagency panel. Section 2 consists of shorter lists of plant species that commonly occur in wetlands of each region. Section 3 describes morphological, physiological, and reproductive adaptations associated with hydrophytic species, as well as a list of some species exhibiting such adaptations. Appendix D discusses procedures for examining soils for hydric soil indicators, and also contains a list of hydric soils of the United States.


17. Although this manual was prepared primarily for use by Corps of Engineers (CE) field inspectors, it should be useful to anyone who makes wetland determinations for purposes of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The user is directed through a series of steps that involve gathering of information and decisionmaking, ultimately leading to a wetland determination. A general flow diagram of activities leading to a determination is presented in Figure 1. However, not all activities identified in Figure 1 will be required for each wetland determination. For example, if a decision is made to use a routine determination procedure, comprehensive determination procedures will not be employed.

Premise for use of the manual

18. Three key provisions of the CE/EPA definition of wetlands (see paragraph 26a) include:

a. Inundated or saturated soil conditions resulting from permanent or periodic inundation by ground water or surface water.
b. A prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions (hydrophytic vegetation).
c. The presence of "normal circumstances."

19. Explicit in the definition is the consideration of three environmental parameters: hydrology, soil, and vegetation. Positive wetland indicators of all three parameters are normally present in wetlands. Although vegetation is often the most readily observed parameter, sole reliance on vegetation or either of the other parameters as the determinant of wetlands can sometimes be misleading. Many plant species can grow successfully in both wetlands and nonwetlands, and hydrophytic vegetation and hydric soils may persist for decades following alteration of hydrology that will render an area a nonwetland. The presence of hydric soils and wetland hydrology indicators in addition to vegetation indicators will provide a logical, easily defensible, and technical basis for the presence of wetlands. The combined use of indicators for all three parameters will enhance the technical accuracy, consistency, and credibility of wetland determinations. Therefore, all three parameters were used in developing the technical guideline for wetlands and all approaches for applying the technical guideline embody the multiparameter concept.


20. The approach used for wetland delineations will vary, based primarily on t;he complexity of the area in question. Two basic approaches described in the manual are (a) routine and (b) comprehensive.

21. Routine approach. The routine approach normally will be used in the vast majority of determinations. The routine approach requires minimal level of effort, using primarily qualitative procedures. This approach can be further subdivided into three levels of required effort, depending on the complexity of the area and the amount and quality of preliminary data available. The following levels of effort may be used for routine determinations:

a. Level 1 - Onsite inspection unnecessary. (PART IV, Section D, Subsection 1).
b. Level 2 - Onsite inspection necessary. (PART IV, Section D, Subsection 2).
c. Level 3 - Combination of Levels 1 and 2. (PART IV, Section D, Subsection 3).

22. Comprehensive approach. The comprehensive approach requires application of quantitative procedures for making wetland determinations. It should seldom be necessary, and its use should be restricted to situations in which the wetland is very complex and/or is the subject of likely or pending litigation. Application of the comprehensive approach (PART IV, Section E) requires a greater level of expertise than application of the routine approach, and only experienced field personnel with sufficient training should use this approach.


23. Procedures described for both routine and comprehensive wetland determinations have been tested and found to be reliable. However, site-specific conditions may require modification of field procedures. For example, slope configuration in a complex area may necessitate modification of the baseline and transect positions. Since specific characteristics (e.g. plant density) of a given plant community may necessitate the use of alternate methods for determining the dominant species, the user has the flexibility to employ sampling procedures other than those described. However, the basic approach for making wetland determinations should not be altered (i.e. the determination should be based on the dominant plant species, soil characteristics, and hydrologic characteristics of the area in question). The user should document reasons for using a different characterization procedure than described in the manual. CAUTION: Application of methods described in the manual or the modified sampling procedures requires that the user be familiar with wetlands of the area and use his training, experience, and good judgment in making wetland determinations.

Environmental Technical Services Co., 834 Castle Ridge Rd., Austin, TX 78746-5152
Revised November 16, 1995. URL =

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