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Great Lakes Article:

Federal money to help protect Mich. wetlands
By Hugh McDiarmid Jr.
Detroit Free Press
Published May 24, 2004

 

TRAVERSE CITY -- Up to $500,000 in federal money is expected to beef up protection of Michigan wetlands next year.

Part of the cash will pay for up to four new Department of Environmental Quality inspectors devoted solely to scrutiny and enforcement of development projects where wetlands are filled, drained or otherwise altered, DEQ Director Steve Chester said Friday.

They would be the only DEQ personnel devoted solely to those jobs, and put teeth on promises by Chester and his boss, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, to make protection of the state's water resources a top priority.

"There is a real need to strengthen our enforcement program," Chester said Friday, after announcing the incoming federal money at a three-day conference in Traverse City commemorating the 25th anniversary of Michigan's key wetlands protection law.

"If we don't take action, it's a bluff, it's all puffery."

More than half of the state's wetlands have been destroyed during the course of Michigan's settlement, experts estimate.

The state's Wetlands Protection Act in 1979 helped stem the rate of loss and made Michigan one of the most progressive states in safeguarding them.

Wetlands -- also known as swamps or marshes -- are valuable ecological sponges that filter pollutants from groundwater before they reach lakes and streams, provide habitats for fish nurseries and rare plants, and temporarily hold stormwater.

With almost 400 conference participants hailing largely from environmental groups, Chester's announcement was warmly embraced Friday.

But the announcement won't be welcomed by all. Wetlands law enforcement often has been adversarial in Michigan; developers and private property owners frequently complain about uneven enforcement. Half of the legal challenges to DEQ enforcement actions come from wetlands cases, Chester said.

Nonetheless, he said he's committed to an aggressive educational effort. "We want predictable, reliable, effective enforcement," Chester said.

Michigan's share of the $5 million in federal money is expected to be between $350,000 and $500,000, said Mary Ellen Cromwell, assistant division chief with the department's land division.

Cromwell said all indications are that the money would arrive for the start of the 2005 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2004.

As the state struggles with revenue shortfalls, Cromwell said it was a bit of a pleasant surprise.

Michigan will get a disproportionately large share of the money because it is one of only two states that administer federal wetlands regulations, in addition to its own. New Jersey is the other.

Currently, 32 environmental quality analysts inspect and enforce federal and state wetlands rules, but that is among dozens of their other duties, said Cromwell.

The new hires would devote all their hours to ensuring that construction projects, farm operations, municipal infrastructure projects and shoreline improvements don't illegally destroy wetlands.

 

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