Representatives from some of the dozens of organizations opposed to a bill that would remove state protections for most of Indiana’s wetlands presented a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking him to veto the legislation.
The groups delivered the letter to the Governor’s office in Indianapolis early Monday, asking him to veto Senate Enrolled Act 389, a bill that would remove protections for Class I wetlands, which make up more than half of the state’s total wetlands, and reduce protections for other wetlands.
More than 100 organizations from around the state, representing tens of thousands of Hoosiers, co-signed the letter, saying the bill “opens the door to irrevocable impacts” and puts the health of current and future Hoosiers at risk.
“SEA 389 would place the vast majority of Indiana’s remaining state-jurisdictional wetlands in jeopardy (more than 500,000 acres). The resulting wetland losses would, without question, cost the state dearly in increased flooding and erosion, loss of groundwater recharge and water supplies, water purification, safe recreation and tourism opportunities and loss of the diverse wildlife that makes Indiana special,” the letter states.
The bill was originally introduced in the Senate, calling for a full repeal of the state’s 2004 Isolated Wetlands Law, which established protections and permitting requirements for Indiana’s wetlands not protected by federal law.
It passed the Senate by a wide margin, then advanced to the House of Representatives, where the Environmental Affairs Committee passed an amendment limiting the scope of the bill. Once it advanced to the full House, another amendment modified the bill to its current form.
The legislation removes all protection for Class I wetlands, which the 2004 law classifies as supporting “minimal” wildlife habitat or hydrologic function.
That legal definition has led bill supporters to declare that the repeal of state wetland protections would not affect the state significantly, a stance that the organizations said was not supported by science.
“There has been a myth circulating at the Statehouse that it's okay to remove protection from these wetlands because they have no value. This is false. Wetlands have tremendous value as part of the overall water system,” said Dr. Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council during a virtual press conference. “This bill revises the law in a harmful way that will cost the state dearly. We want the governor to know that there is a better way. There are policy options that are supported by science that need to be explored.”
The groups said the legislation would have serious unintended consequences that would affect local governments, farmers and other Hoosiers who live in rural areas.
Matt Meersman, director of the St. Joseph River Basin Commission, said the bill would worsen wetland loss already being experienced by cities like South Bend, and could make water management projects too expensive to undertake.
“As we've lost that, we've had to spend a ton of money to figure out how to store [water] in our cities. Where I think this deregulation could really hit us at the local government level is out in the county where we're maintaining this rural drainage infrastructure,” Meersman said. “We've got all these county regulated drains that crisscross the county, and the cost of maintaining them, let alone trying to expand the capacity of them, because we're throwing more water at them, it goes up so they get more bank erosion. A lot of these are underground tile lines, buried pipes, and you have to build larger pipes as we lose wetlands upstream on the landscape.”
Meersman said the cost of installing the infrastructure to replicate the functions of wetlands lost due to the bill could be astronomical.
“As we lose storage upstream, there’s no question that the cost of expanding and maintaining what’s there is going to go up. I just don’t know exactly how much. It’s scary to think about it. In fact, if you talk to the County Surveyors Association of Indiana, they will tell you that today’s cost of building the kind of infrastructure we’ve got out there on the landscape right now would be unfathomable. We couldn’t afford to do it in today’s dollars,” Meersman said.
Hamilton County farmer Rodney Rulon said passage of the bill would have a negative effect on water quality and could end up costing farmers in the long run.
“I understand the knee jerk reaction on the desire to do away with a layer of regulation, but I just don't feel that it's in the best interest in the long term of anyone, especially us as farmers, when we look at the impact that we're having on the landscape and, and protecting the water resources, we really need to keep those protections in place,” Rulon said. “In addition, removing the Indiana code really does not go as far as a lot of a lot of people might think to relieve the burden from us. In reality, it probably removes a layer of protection that we have where we have a local government entity that we can work with and identify these wetlands, and leaves us solely at the jurisdiction of two federal entities that often have contradictory interpretations of wetlands and things like that.”
Rulon also said the repeal of state wetland protections could expose farmers to expensive lawsuits due to the migration of pesticides, fertilizers and soil.
The bill is also opposed by hunting and fishing organizations, which said the bill would have a huge negative effect on the state’s multi-billion-dollar wildlife tourism industry.
“Wetlands provide the critical life source for our state’s wildlife, both game and non-game species. It’s estimated that 50% of Indiana’s species of greatest conservation need rely on wetland environments,” said director of public relations for Ducks Unlimited Kyle Rorah.
The passage of the bill could affect the population of mallards, a favorite of hunters whose population numbers have declined recently.
“We’ve got declining populations of Great Lakes mallards that we’ve noticed over the last several years. We’re trying to understand what happening there. Studies are showing that it’s directly related to wetland quality and quantity,” Rorah said. “Reducing wetland acres in Indiana is the last thing we need.”
Despite the unpopularity of the bill in numerous circles, it is still supported by influential lobbying organizations like the Indiana Builders Association and the Indiana Farm Bureau, whose members stand to profit from the repeal of state wetland protections and permitting requirements.
The original bill presented in the Senate was officially authored by three senators who are members of the Indiana Builders Association, and many of the senators who later signed onto the bill had some link to the home construction, realty or insurance industries.
The groups said that they hope Gov. Holcomb will veto the bill, despite the powerful organizations supporting it.
“Gov. Holcomb was quoted when the bill passed the Senate that he was very concerned about the bill at the time,” said John Ketzenberger, director of government relations at The Nature Conservancy. “And I would note that both [Indiana Department of Environmental Management] and [Department of Natural Resources] have participated in the process of providing information and education and talking with legislators as this goes through. So that indicates that they're very interested in the outcome of this. We don't know what the governor will do. It's his decision to make. We would certainly hope that he will do this. And we're reasonably encouraged by what we'd seen before. So we have high hopes that he will veto this bill.”.
If the governor vetoes the bill, the Legislature could override the veto, as they have once before this legislative session.
Frank said a veto would, at the very least, give the organizations more time to continue the dialogue with legislators about sound wetland policy.