Opposition to wetlands bill draws together broad range of people; amendment awaited

By Linda Gibson

Opponents of a bill that would strip state protection from wetlands are hoping for an amendment that would significantly change it before the Indiana House votes on it.

Senate Bill 389, dubbed “the anti-wetlands bill” by opponents, easily passed the Republican-controlled Senate and is now in the House Environmental Affairs Committee, also dominated by Republicans. It proposes to end all permitting, mitigating and enforcement actions for dredging, filling, draining, dumping or discharging into all but federally protected wetlands, or roughly 80 percent in the state.

Time is short. This legislative session is to end on April 29. Senate Bill 389 is scheduled for a second reading in the House Environmental Affairs Committee on Monday, April 5. This is when any amendment would be voted on.

Since the draft amendment could change by then, legislators contacted declined to describe it before it is presented to the committee on Monday.

The bill has galvanized opposition from more than 80 groups representing duck, deer, pheasant and quail hunters, fishermen, boaters, environmentalists, conservation lawyers, landscape architects, boat manufacturers, trappers, gardeners, birders, flood control districts, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ and the Potawatomi Tribe.

Some 60 groups signed a letter to legislators full of wetland facts and suggestions for improving the current law, instead of just deleting it.

“I’ve not seen so many people moved by a call to action as this one,” Natalie Johnson, executive director of Save the Dunes, said.  

Not even Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb could muster enthusiasm for it as currrently written.

“We need to be confident that any changes in the law avoid harming drinking water quality, increasing potential for flooding, or hurting wildlife habitats used by our anglers and hunters,” he told the IndyStar. 

Supporters of the bill include five groups representing builders, developers and manufacturers. Dr. Indra Frank of the Hoosier Environmental Council said private property rights were one of the big drivers of support for it.

“Wetlands are the most cost-effective stormwater system we have,” she said, pointing out that a one-acre wetland can store a million gallons of water. If it’s filled in, neighboring properties could be flooded. “Wetlands are part of a whole water system that ignores property lines. It’s a shared resource.”

Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Ogden Dunes, said she hopes the bill simply will die in committee.

“I’m hoping we can see it turned into a two-year task force,” Rep. Sue Errington said. A Democrat from Muncie, she’s the ranking minority member on the House Environmental Affairs Committee. She imagines a task force comprising university scientists, expert on wetlands, government regulators, realtors and industry representatives.

“We could offer incentives to preserve a wetland, like a tax credit for that spot of land,” she said. “We have something similar for forests.”

Indiana’s Classified Forests and Wildlands Program gives landowners a tax reduction and technical assistance in return for following a professionally written land management program. A minimum of 10 acres of forest, wetland, shrubland and/or grassland is required.

Another approach to wetland protection is through municipal ordinances, Randy Jones, a wetlands consultant in Franklin, Ind., said. “It’s done in a few areas of Michigan and is common out West. A problem with local regulations is that they are commonly used in wealthier communities to protect the status quo, and could result in an inequitable distribution of habitat destruction and water quality impairments based on income.”

In Donaldson, Ind., four sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ signed a letter to legislators “imploring” them to oppose SB 389. The order, comprising 640 women in nine countries, “has dedicated itself to protecting creation through ecological restoration and preservation. SB 389 would leave our wetlands vulnerable to be destroyed without oversight or discernment.”

In Porter County, environmental educator Billie Warren of the Pokagon Potawatomi said wetlands were essential to the tribe’s culture. “Our people, especially in this area, were known for getting all of our food, medicine and utilitarian items from wetlands.”

Warren will conduct a Water Ceremony of prayer at noon on Saturday, April 3, at Lake George in Hobart as part of a rally in opposition to SB 389. The rally is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. All who wear masks and maintain social distance are welcome to attend, she said.

Contact information for your legislator

For information on Senate Bill 271, see Legiscan.com or Openstates.org

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