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Great Lakes Article:

Stalemate endangers wetlands protection law
The Indianapolis Star
By Tammy Webber

An almost yearlong effort to craft a law protecting Indiana's most vulnerable wetlands is in danger of going down the drain unless a bipartisan committee can work out a last-minute deal.

The chairman of the House Environmental Affairs Committee has refused to hear a wetlands bill passed by the Senate, saying there is not enough time to sift through the detailed and lengthy document. And the head of the Senate Environment Committee has stripped wetlands language from a House bill, calling it a "hodgepodge without any thought behind it."

The moves have frustrated environmentalists, farmers and developers who, in a rare show of cooperation, worked with lawmakers last summer and fall to find middle ground that could form the basis of a wetlands protection law.

"The existing system is broken," said Bill Beranek, president of the nonprofit Indiana Environmental Institute. "Uncertainty is bad for environmental quality, and it's bad for economic development."

At stake is the ability of state environmental officials to protect isolated wetlands -- those with no connection to navigable waterways.

Indiana has no law protecting its wetlands. Today, 85 percent of the state's original wetlands are gone and, of the estimated 813,000 acres remaining, about one-third are isolated.

Isolated wetlands provide breeding areas for waterfowl and habitats for plants and animals; they also filter groundwater and control flooding. But they sometimes stand in the way of millions of dollars in housing and business development.

The Environmental Quality Service Council, a panel of lawmakers that meets in the summer to consider possible laws, voted unanimously last fall to recommend legislation regulating wetlands and called for a net gain in high-quality isolated wetlands.

This year, versions were introduced in the Senate and House.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, author of Senate Bill 491 and head of the Senate Environment Committee, said the House proposal would have exempted too many wetlands from protection, and she didn't like its provision calling for wetlands banking -- allowing developers to build new wetlands elsewhere in place of those that are filled.

House Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman James Bottorff, D-Jeffersonville, who sponsored House Bill 1221, said there was not enough time to read and vote on Gard's "very detailed bill."

Now the only hope for passing a wetlands law this year is if language is inserted in another bill when lawmakers meet in conference committee. Legislative leaders have said they hope to adjourn for the year by April 24.

Gard and Bottorff said they hope to work something out.

But environmentalists say neither bill offers enough protection for the smallest wetlands, some of which are less than an acre. And they say a law is needed to establish clear lines of jurisdiction.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has tried to regulate isolated wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act. But in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had no jurisdiction over isolated wetlands -- leaving the state also without jurisdiction.

"There is some real uncertainty here, which is why our approach was to get a good bill to help strengthen and affirm the state's authority," said Tim Maloney, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

If the state does not resolve the issue, Indiana risks losing developers to other states, said Orrin Sessions, vice chairman of the Indiana Association of Home Builders' land development committee.

"We need the ground rules, the environmentalists need them, and IDEM needs them," he said.

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