Nature preserve flowers

These flowers are among the many native plants that are growing near the Fee-Howard Wetlands project at Hamilton. The new nature preserve that’s been part of the project was dedicated in September 2019 at the Fish Creek Trail. While Steuben County tends to celebrate its wetlands, House lawmakers in Indianapolis have stripped state protections of them through Senate Bill 389.

INDIANAPOLIS — Wetlands legislation that had seen compromises added that were favorable to environmental groups ended up passing April 13 in the Indiana House with those changes stripped at the last minute, providing little protection to state classified wetlands.

The bill passed on a 58-40 tally, with numerous Republicans voting “no” on the final measure.

Lawmakers from Northeast Indiana where much of the state’s remaining wetlands can be found voted against the bill. Those include Reps. David Abbott, R-Albion; Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn; and Denny Zent, R-Angola.

The bill now returns to the Senate where its Republican author, Sen. Chris Garten, can either agree to the amendments to the bill or send it to conference committee between the House and Senate to work out differences. Once that process is complete, the bill advances to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk for approval or a veto.

“This is much worse than the version of the bill that came out of committee last week,” Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said.

“If (Senate Bill) 389 becomes law, the loss of wetlands could lead to high costs in increased flooding, lost groundwater recharge, lost water purification, and lost wildlife habitat,” Frank said in a prepared statement. “More generally, SB 389 sends the wrong signal to businesses and talent that make decisions in part on a state’s environmental quality and reputation. We urge House and Senate leadership to heed the call of over 80 well-respected environmental, conservation, civic, sportsmen’s, faith, lake, river and professional organizations that are opposed to SB 389, an unprecedented degree of unity, and urge the Senate and House sponsors to convert this bill to a Wetlands Task Force in conference committee.”

Changes made last week to the controversial wetlands bill seems to have pleased opponents to the legislation that would have repealed a 2003 law that protected state-regulated wetlands.

The final bill did establish a legislative study committee to review wetlands, their status and regulations in the state.

The final bill stripped all regulations on Class I wetlands and requires permits to alter Class II wetlands greater than three-eighths of an acre or those that are three-quarters of an acre that are near municipalities. Class I wetlands represent 58% of Indiana’s remaining wetlands, a report from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management said.

The legislation was opposed by Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, who represents the northeast corner of the state.

Garten and other sponsors maintained that vague language in the state law, over-enforcement by state regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs prompted the bill.

Environmental groups and state regulatory officials pushed back, arguing that because wetlands provide water purification, habitat for wildlife and reduced flood risks, it’s critical that they’re protected.

“We are the Land of 101 Lakes in Steuben County and we rely on the adequate function of wetlands,” said a letter sent to Zent by Angola Mayor Dick Hickman. “Wetlands are imperative in aiding both water quality and water quantity (flooding) in our area. To remove the existing protection of isolated wetlands would be a great disservice to our community, as well as others across the state.”

Scores of organizations, including many from Northeast Indiana and local governments and environmental groups, water management agencies and conservation groups, sent a letter to legislators asking them to consider policy changes instead of removal of a state protections for Indiana wetlands.

Included as signees on the letter included the city of Angola, Steuben County Lakes Council, Blue Heron Ministries, Indiana Lakes Management Society, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Delta Waterfowl and many more. Other municipalities included Carmel and Bloomington.

The bill’s authors, all members of the Indiana Builders Association, have said the bill will help eliminate costs associated with land development.

The organizations opposing the bill also argue that Indiana’s wetlands are important water assets that are not comparable to those found in the other 49 states. The state depends on wetlands for economic reasons, like tourism and recreation, and resiliency, through water management and flood control.

Wetlands trap and slowly release water, filtering out sediment through vegetation before it reaches surface and groundwater systems.

Without these natural processes, local governments would have to spend millions of dollars to replicate their functions, it is argued.

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