Problems with removing wetland protections

WI Green FireWI Green Fire, February 14, 2018

Ephemeral wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. Photo by Eric Epstein.
Ephemeral wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. Photo by Eric Epstein.

Wisconsin’s Green Fire analyzed recent amendments to Senate Bill 600 and Assembly Bill 547, the legislative proposals to reduce state oversight of wetlands that are not protected under the federal Clean Water Act. See our analysis and February 11, 2018 press release.

Ephemeral wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. Photo by Eric Epstein.

Ephemeral wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. Photo by Eric Epstein.

Wetlands grace our landscape in Wisconsin. But, over our history, we have lost about half of our original wetlands. Wetlands are important to our outdoor heritage and economic well-being. As feeders for trout streams, habitats for song birds, game birds, frogs, and other wildlife, wetlands enrich our lives. Wetlands filter and cleanse our waters. They hold water to protect our communities from flooding.

State protections for wetlands would be rolled back under proposed legislation. These proposed changes are based on the argument that Wisconsin’s wetland regulations are too cumbersome and strict, and are a barrier to development. Yet, over 85 percent of applications to fill wetlands are granted by the DNR. The process to get a permit to fill a wetland involves determining the size and functions of the wetland, as well as considering alternatives and ways to minimize impacts. For wetland fills over about a quarter of an acre, there must be compensatory mitigation: wetlands created or restored elsewhere.

If enacted into law, the amended bill would allow filling of wetlands without a permit in incorporated areas if the wetland is less than one acre and only regulated by the state. The exemption would not be available for certain high quality vegetation types. While referred to as “urban” wetlands, this exemption would actually apply in urban, suburban, villages, many small towns and lake communities. Local communities would not be allowed to have stricter requirements than the state.

Wisconsin’s Green Fire recognizes there are opportunities to streamline the regulatory process. However, Assembly Bill 547 and Senate Bill 600 as amended, create a system that is unlikely to succeed. It imposes strict deadlines for work while refusing to acknowledge major DNR staff cuts. The bill would require the DNR to approve wetland boundaries without going on-site, and within 15 days. Moreover, the DNR would only have 15 days to make a determination of eligibility or the permit exemption request is automatically approved. The bills call for creation of two new grant programs to help fund mitigation projects on state lands, but provide no funding for program development or administration.

Wisconsin’s Green Fire agrees that the provision in the bill to exempt “artificial wetlands” makes sense. There are other approaches worth exploring, but are not in the current bill. Regulatory flexibility within the permit process for state-regulated wetlands which are degraded and provide limited values, makes sense. The permitting process can be streamlined rather than providing wide-ranging exemptions with limited oversight as in the proposed legislation. Wisconsin’s Green Fire continues to offer our expertise to craft workable regulatory approaches. Our members include wetland scientists and those with experience in DNR’s regulatory programs.

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