A bill being circulated by Rep. Jim Steineke and Sen. Roger Roth would eliminate oversight of nonfederal wetlands by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The Wisconsin Wetlands Association said the bill would put 20 percent of the state’s wetlands at risk for development while the bill’s authors believe many of those wetlands have negligible benefits to environmental quality to begin with.
The bill is being circulated for co-sponsorship and it would eliminate the need for DNR approval on all nonfederal wetlands, or wetlands that are not protected under the Clean Water Act. These spots of land, also known as isolated wetlands, are nonfederal because they don’t have a surface water connection to any navigable waterway.
Wisconsin is one of three states that require environmental review on nonfederal wetlands, the others are Indiana and Ohio. Wisconsin adopted the provision after a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined the Clean Water Act did not extend protections to these isolated wetlands.
In a video promoting the bill, Steineke and Roth spoke to a developer who could not build on a lot due to the presence of an indistinguishable wetland. Steineke said the wetland was created by the impression of heavy trucks and machinery and does not serve a purpose environmentally.
“Any rational person would look at this and say there is no way that this is a wetland,” said Steineke in the video, pointing to an undeveloped lot.
While Stieneke hopes the bill will lift red tape on development of environmentally deficient wetlands, the wetlands association believes the broad regulatory repeal will have detrimental effects on flood mitigation, water quality and wildlife habitat.
“Though often described as ‘isolated’ wetlands, these wetlands connect hydrologically to surface and groundwater in many valuable ways,” said the Wisconsin Wetlands Association in a statement. “They are often individually small but regionally abundant and provide critical functions on the landscape. This includes protecting people and property from floods.”
In initial conversations about stormwater flooding problems in the Village of Ephraim, residents pointed to the historic filling of wetlands on the southern side of Hwy 42 as the primary reason for today’s drainage problems.
UW-Stevens Point Researcher Nancy Turyk believed development around the Fish Creek watershed, and subsequent runoff, as a likely cause for the creek’s declining quality of fish habitat in the watershed’s master plan.
“Wetlands manage the water that flows across our landscapes, reducing the size and flashiness of flood events by soaking up water, storing runoff and slowly releasing it into our creeks, rivers, and lakes,” said the wetlands association following the flooding in Houston and referencing the flooding in southeast Wisconsin this July.
The bill includes a requirement that a developer must develop 1.2 acres of artificial wetland somewhere else in the state for each acre of wetland that is filled. However, the bill also exempts artificial wetlands from the permitting process.
The state’s incentive package for Foxconn Technology Group included exemption from the DNR’s wetland permitting.