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Great Lakes Article:

Flawed wetland legislation
The Journal Gazette

Indiana can't afford to lose many more wetlands, and a pair of bills in the General Assembly threaten further encroachment by developers. Lawmakers should strengthen - not undermine - them when amendments are considered in their respective committees, beginning today.

Drainage boards, power companies, builders, landfill owners, farmers and steel manufacturers are lining up behind a bill sponsored by Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield. The Sierra Club, Izaak Walton League and Hoosier Environmental Council are among her bill's critics. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Indiana Department of Natural Resources have also called for major changes in the legislation.

Another bill, by Rep. James L. Bottorff, D-Jeffersonville, contains a few more helpful provisions than Gard's. But both fall short of what needs to be done.

The bills focus on isolated wetlands, defined as pools, bogs and other swampy areas with no surface connection to lakes, streams and other navigable waters. Isolated wetlands are found mostly in patches of less than 10 acres in the northern part of the state.

The percentage of Hoosier land occupied by wetlands has dropped to about 3.5 percent today. Isolated wetlands constitute about a third of the surviving wetlands.

Wetlands matter because of their importance as fish and wildlife habitats, in maintaining groundwater supplies and filtering sediment and pollution away from groundwater.

The bills' failure to adequately protect smaller wetlands is one of their major weaknesses, especially when more than 90 percent of the state's wetlands are one acre or less.

"The thing to remember is that the size of the wetland is not closely related to the importance of its function," said Tim Maloney, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

The bills also set up a flawed system for designating some isolated wetlands for stricter regulation than others. Wetlands are divided into three classes, based on subjective and vague standards for determining their quality and how much they have been disturbed by human activity. Wetlands completely undisturbed and deemed of highest quality would be covered by the strictest standards. Unfortunately, Maloney believes only a few will qualify. The rest would be under looser rules.

"You still can have valuable wetlands performing an important function, even if they have had some level of disturbance," Maloney said.

The bills are a response to two recent court cases, one originating in Fort Wayne that went against state and federal regulators. The cases put pressure on lawmakers and regulators to pass legislation spelling out how much power the state should have over isolated wetlands. Failure to do so will invite more litigation.

Gard's bill will be considered by the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee today. Bottorff's will be reviewed Wednesday by the House Environmental Affairs Committee.

Both bills can serve a valuable purpose in defining state regulatory authority. But first they must be amended to reflect the importance of vanishing wetlands to the state's environment.

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