The Journal Gazette
 
 
Monday, April 19, 2021 1:00 am

Wetlands safeguards would be win

Larry Clemens

Indiana's General Assembly recently illustrated what's become an unfortunate and all-too-frequent political maxim: When money talks, good public policy walks.

In this case the money, about $390,000 spread across the General Assembly since 2017, according to the Indianapolis Star, comes from the Indiana Builders Association. The result is Senate Bill 389, and it is bad public policy. I hope Gov. Eric Holcomb will veto the bill.

Its first, horrible iteration was a repeal of regulations that protect about 800,000 acres of wetlands not connected to a lake or a stream. These wetlands perform basic and important functions.

They include storing excess water (up to 1 million gallons an acre, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) which helps mitigate the increasingly frequent and intense flooding we've seen over the last 15 years. These wetlands also act as filters for the aquifers many Hoosiers draw their water from, reducing the effort needed to make it potable.

And let's not discount the important role wetlands play in the life cycles of plants and animals, including rare and endangered species. People who like to hunt, fish or just observe these natural wonders know the intrinsic value of wetlands and the joy they help us experience.

While nature provides these services without cost, they do have value. Each acre of wetlands annually provides $248 worth of purification, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. A single acre also provides $2,270 in water storage services and $1,055 worth of erosion prevention.

That means the annual value of these services from all of Indiana's isolated wetlands is $202 million in water purification, $1.8 billion in water storage and $850 million in erosion prevention. That's nearly the amount Indiana stands to gain from the one-time federal stimulus program, except the state realizes that benefit each year.

Yet the legislative process was stacked against preserving wetlands. The bill was rammed through the Senate, the only significant public testimony offered by the Indiana Builders Association and an attorney representing the interests of one farmer. The process slowed in the House, but not until 90 groups and thousands of Hoosiers finally got the attention of a few legislators who actually heard what the experts were saying about wetlands' benefits.

Working with the groups, Reps. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, and David Abbott, R-Rome City, crafted a compromise in a few days that struck a balance between the complaints heard and the value of wetlands.

The Indiana Farm Bureau and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce supported the compromise and its adoption was led by Rep. Doug Gutwein, R-DeMotte, who chaired the House Environmental Affairs Committee.

This bill wasn't perfect, but it was an acceptable compromise.

Unfortunately, it wasn't acceptable to those who wanted to strip all protections from Indiana's wetlands, the Builders Association. The association's representatives convinced Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, to introduce an amendment that strips all protection from Class I wetlands, more than half of those that remain, and severely restricts regulation of Class II wetlands. It narrowly passed the House and poisoned the bipartisan compromise.

Two days later, his bounty in hand, the bill's author, Sen. Chris Garten, R-Scottsburg, agreed to the changes and the bill won final passage despite vigorous bipartisan opposition.

Now it's up to Holcomb. We hope he understands wetlands provide far more value for all Hoosiers than the alleged cost savings developers will see from reduced regulation.

He needs to hear from you, too. Please let Holcomb know you value wetlands and urge him to veto SB 389. He can be reached at govholcomb@gov.in.gov.

Let's help the General Assembly realize good public policy that benefits the entire state matters more than the influence of a few. 

Larry Clemens is state director of The Nature Conservancy's Indiana chapter.


Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily