A Republican congressman in Ohio has proposed a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would formalize the end of federal protection for small streams and wetlands nationwide.
Rep. Bob Latta of Bowling Green, probably without irony, dubbed it the “Withstanding Attempts to Encroach on Our Resources (WATER) Act.” The bill aims to codify a Trump Administration rollback of Obama-era rules that had protected small waterways under the Clean Water Act. If this is accomplished, reversing it would take another act of Congress.
In a press release of April 19, Latta called the Obama protections “overreach of federal regulators” into the rights of private property owners.
Indiana just passed a law that eliminates state protection of these same wetlands. Critics say up to 80 percent of the state’s wetlands now can be dredged, filled or discharged into without oversight. The remaining 20 percent are under federal protection. Latta’s bill would not change that.
Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed a bill that ends state protection for about 80 percent of Indiana’s wetlands, habitat that iconic species such as bald eagles depend on.
The remaining 20 percent are under protection from the federal Clean Water Act.
Until now, developers, farmers, miners or others who wanted to dredge, fill or discharge into wetlands had to get a permit from Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management. Although IDEM in 2020 sought sanctions for only one violator of wetlands regulations, builders complained that the permit process was a heavy burden under what the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Chris Garten of Scottsburg, Ind., called “out-of-control” IDEM enforcement agents.
One hundred organizations, and all Democrats in the Legislature, opposed the bill. Five organizations supported it, led by the Indiana Builders Association.
Indiana Rep. Sue Errington, a Democrat from Muncie who pushed for the wetlands task force authorized by the bill, said she was “deeply disappointed” about the rest of it. “The Governor has given into the demands of private interests and turned his back on the hundred organizations, who represent thousands of Hoosiers, that called for him to veto this legislation,” she said.
Opponents of the bill, including Save the Dunes and the Hoosier Environmental Council, say it “… represents one of the greatest setbacks in the history of Indiana conservation policy because it places hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in jeopardy. The potential loss … could considerably cost the state in increased flooding, lost groundwater recharge, lost water purification, and lost wildlife habitat, driving up property damage, taxpayer-funded infrastructure repairs, and damaging Indiana’s vibrant recreational sector. “
Developers, farmers or anyone seeking to disturb a wetland still have to get expert consultation on whether it is federally protected, or a state Class I wetland that gets no protection.
The task force created by the bill will study the state of wetlands in Indiana and their impacts. It is to report its findings to the legislature on November 1st, 2022.
The Hoosier Environmental Council‘s website has lists of legislators who voted for or against the bill, as well as information on how to find your legislator. For a list of organizations who supported the bill, see the post “The future of Indiana wetlands: bald eagles or bulldozers?”
Gov. Eric Holcomb has until Wednesday, May 5th, to sign the bill or veto it. If he chooses neither action, the bill automatically becomes law. It would significantly narrow the number of Indiana wetlands protected from dredging, filling, dumping and polluting.
For an explanation of what wetlands are, what they do and why so many groups oppose the bill, see the letter whose link is presented in the previous blog post.
More than 50 organizations have signed a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking him to veto the current version of SEA 389, a bill that would eliminate protection of a significant portion of the state’s wetlands.
A caravan of people representing these groups will rally at the Capitol at 8:30 a.m. (Eastern time) Monday, April 25th, then present the letter to the governor about 8:45 a.m.
A copy of the letter follows. It includes several pages of appendices that explain the science of wetlands, policy alternatives and the broad range of groups in opposition to the current bill.
The Indiana Senate Wednesday approved the amended House version of a bill that regulates wetlands. It’s now on the desk of Gov. Eric Holcomb, awaiting his approval or veto. The bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 31 to 19.
Holcomb expressed reservations about the original bill, which simply would have deleted all regulation and protection of the state’s wetlands. This version has been modified to provide some protection. It also sets up a task force to study wetlands and recommend how to make the law less costly for developers.
The Indiana House on April 13th passed a wetlands regulation bill that includes creation of a task force to study wetlands and recommend actions to be taken.
Number one on the list of six goals was this: “Strategies to mitigate the costs incurred by builders to comply with the state regulation of wetland activity…while maintaining the integrity of those environmental safeguards.”
Other goals included studying flood reduction benefits of isolated wetlands, the role of isolated wetlands in storing carbon dioxide, and recommending incentives for developers to preserve existing wetlands and avoid affecting them.
Environmental groups had urged establishment of the task force instead of (or at least before) the wholesale deletion of the wetlands regulation law, which the bill originally proposed. That original bill drew opposition from more than 80 groups, ranging from hunters to flood control experts.
The Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) released a statement opposing the bill as currently written, saying it eliminates protection for Class I wetlands and reduces protection for Class II wetlands. Classes I and II make up 58 percent and 41 percent of Indiana wetlands, respectively, according to estimates by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, wrote HEC.
The bill now returns to the Senate, where author Chris Garten, a Republican who owns a countertop store, will accept or reject the amendments. If he rejects them, a conference committee of Senate and House members will try to come up with a compromise bill.
If the bill passes, the task force is to report its findings to the Legislature, the governor and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management by Nov. 1, 2022.
The House Environmental Affairs Committee has amended SB 389 to make some moderate changes to the law protecting Indiana’s wetlands, rather than deleting it altogether as the original bill proposed.
Tucked among the moderate changes, however, are a couple of more drastic ones. Protection for any wetland dependent on an ephemeral stream would be dropped. Also dropped is a statement from the 2003 law that the goal of mitigation is “a net gain in high quality wetlands.”
The Hoosier Environmental Council, in a detailed statement, urges members and the public to oppose any further amendments, to support the creation of a task force to study Indiana’s wetlands and to oppose the Senate version of SB 389, which would eliminate all regulation and protection of state wetlands.
The House is expected to vote a second time on the bill on Monday, April 12. The chart below, by the Hoosier Environmental Council, compares various versions of the bill.
Senate version 389
Indiana Wetlands Law
Amendment 24 Modifies
Class I wetlands
Class II wetlands
Class III wetlands
Significantly reduces requirements
Moderately reduces requirements
Wetlands that exist “only because of an ephemeral stream”
Development of cropland with wetland
all wetlands in cropland can be developed
If used for agriculture in the last 10 years
If used for agriculture in the last 10 years
Maintain a field tile within a wetland
all tiles in wetlands can be repaired
With a permit if it does not drain the wetland
With a permit if it does not drain the wetland
IDEM’s time to issue a wetland permit
Reduces from 120 to 90 days
Reduces from 120 to 90 days
Statement that the goal is “a net gain in high quality wetlands”
Senate Bill 389, which would end state regulation of dredging, filling, draining and discharging into most of Indiana’s wetlands, is scheduled for a hearing at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 7, before the Indiana House Environmental Affairs Committee, according to legislative media spokesman Jose DeFonce.
The bill also will include an amendment to be voted on. Dr. Indra Frank of the Hoosier Environmental Council described it: “Amendment 24 is much better than the original bill…, but it still reduces wetland protection. It’s not good, but we have been warned that if Amendment 24 doesn’t make it into the bill, then something worse will pass.” DeFonce said no testimony would be taken.
The bill as written has attracted substantial opposition from at least 80 groups representing hunting, fishing, the environment, water quality, flood control and boating. It’s supported by five groups representing builders, manufacturers, farmers and developers.
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.
Indiana Senate Bill 389, which would abolish the law protecting most of the states’s wetlands, was given a hearing in the House Environmental Affairs Committee the morning of Monday, March 22nd. Testimony was heard and the bill was held for further discussion.
Five groups, representing builders, farmers, manufacturers and energy, support the bill. Seventy-five groups, representing environmentalists, hunters and state wetlands regulators, oppose it. Without the law in place, wetlands could be bulldozed, drained, filled or discharged into without oversight, Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokesman Barry Sneed said.
For more information on what wetlands do and why they’re important, see the story below called, “The future of Indiana wetlands: bald eagles or bulldozers?”