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Great Lakes Article:

State budget, EPA complicate wetlands protection
The Associated Press
01/27/2003

LANSING (AP) -- Gov. Jennifer Granholm promised during her campaign that she would protect critical wetlands, taking steps to buy threatened areas with revenue from an expanded bottle deposit law if necessary.

Yet even with that pledge in place and key lawmakers, environmental groups and state bureaucrats intent on beefing up protection of Michigan swamps and bogs, the outlook for Michigan wetlands is murky.

Environmentalists say the federal government is showing little leadership on the issue.

At the state level, a growing deficit will make it harder to protect the vast acres of wetlands in Michigan that cleanse water through filtration and provide habitat for birds and fish.

The state's general fund, which supports environmental programs, is estimated to be $158 million in the red this fiscal year and facing a shortfall of more than $1.5 billion in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Scott McEwen, water resource program director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council of Petoskey, acknowledges that there's a lot of competing demands on how to spend the state's dwindling resources. But he says stronger wetlands protection should be a priority of the new administration.

"If you don't have the staff to do the enforcement action it doesn't get done," he says. "There needs to be more appropriations."

David Dempsey, senior policy adviser with the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, said like-minded groups are pushing for stronger wetland protection laws now that Republican Gov. John Engler has been replaced by the new Democratic governor.

"We have the option to pass a stronger law than EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) requires," he said. "I don't know if the political will is there."

Both Granholm and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, R-Wyoming, support more wetlands protection. But they caution budget worries may hamper those efforts.

"What we can do is limited," says Granholm spokeswoman Mary Dettloff.

The state's renewed commitment to protecting Michigan's wetlands comes on the heels of new guidelines recently released by the Bush administration for replacing swamps and bogs that have been filled or drained to make way for highway, housing or other projects.

Bush administration officials say their approach will not diminish the role of wetlands in providing habitat to wildlife, flood control and water quality. But conservationists warn it could significantly reduce the amount of Michigan's wetlands and waters protected by the federal Clean Water Act.

A recent EPA review of Michigan's efforts to oversee its wetlands without federal oversight recommended keeping Michigan's oversight powers in place. New Jersey is the only other state with the right to regulate its own wetlands.

But the review also noted several concerns that needed corrective action.

The EPA said Michigan law exempts too much activity from wetlands enforcement, and noted that isolated wetlands in smaller counties or wetlands of under five acres that are not connected to a lake or stream won't be regulated until a state inventory of wetlands is completed.

It added that some permits approved by the state may jeopardize threatened or endangered species.

"It makes it clear that Michigan has some serious flaws in its program," says Anne Woiwode, director of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. "This report confirms ... that the enforcement has not been good."

But the coordinator of the federal wetlands program at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which is charged with enforcing the wetlands laws, says the EPA review "didn't find any fault with our enforcement program."

"It's not surprising that we've gotten out of sync with federal law in some circumstances," Peg Bostwick says. "Enforcement is a time-consuming process."

Sikkema says the state's budget problems may mean that the property owners who control wetlands regulated by the state will have to pay the costs of enforcing better protection through permit fees.

"Everyone knows the budget problems we're facing in this state," says Sikkema, former head of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. "The wetlands program is going to have to be a program where fees basically finance the program itself."

William Rustem, vice president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants and environmental aide to former Gov. William Milliken, would like to see state regulators take a new approach under Granholm.

"To a large extent, the DEQ treated EPA as an enemy," he says. "That doesn't work over the long run."

Although Rustem and Sikkema say enforcement has become somewhat lax in recent years, a spokesman for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce worries what tougher enforcement of state wetlands protection laws could mean for developers.

Doug Roberts Jr., the group's director of environmental and regulatory affairs, says that state officials in the past have worked with businesses and homeowners to bring them into compliance rather than punishing them. He'd like to see that approach continued.

"We are a little concerned about the message being sent" by advocates for tougher enforcement, he says.

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On the Net:

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, http://www.michigan.gov/deq

Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, http://www.watershedcouncil.org/

Michigan Chamber of Commerce, http://www.michamber.com

Michigan Environmental Council, http://www.mecprotects.org/

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/

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