Wetlands bill headed for Snyder's desk
Wetlands bill headed for governor's desk (June 19, 2013)
Now, the bill is headed for Governor Rick Snyder’s desk.
Senate Bill 163 was originally drafted to address flaws in Michigan’s oversight in its wetlands development permitting, found in a 2008 audit by the Environmental Protection Agency. Michigan and New Jersey are the only two states in the country that the EPA allows to oversee its own permitting process. All other states wishing to work in wetlands must get permitting through the EPA at the federal level, under the Clean Water Act.
Those in support of the bill say it clarifies the permitting processes for farmers and utility companies. Those against the legislation says it waters down protection of wetlands.
“We’re one of only two states that run a good enough program to run that program within the state,” said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing. “Virtually the entire regulated community realizes it’s a good idea to have to go to the state in one place and get one permit to cover all development activity in wetlands.”
He says environmental groups are concerned about what the bill opens up in wetlands: namely, activities in wetlands that the bill, if signed, could be exempt from needing a permit. Those include maintaining drains placed in agricultural fields to syphon off extra water, making them farmable. Farmers also would be allowed to put up fencing around areas where they water their livestock without obtaining a permit. Federally, farmers are permitted to water their livestock in a wetland, but it’s currently not clear whether farmers in Michigan can build a fence to corral those livestock, said Matt Smego, legal council for Michigan Farm Bureau.
“For the most part, many of those activities can be conducted, but they need to be conducted carefully and under certain conditions,” Clift said.
Smego said the bill’s exemptions clarify what was a confusing process for farmers and officials enforcing the permits.
“Drain maintenance is a great issue. Under federal law, maintenance of a private, agricultural drain is an exempted activity — but that was never defined within Michigan law,” Smego said.
The bill, he said, establishes that the maintenance of an already-constructed drain would be exempted from the permitting process. But the bill takes away the permit exemption for the construction and improvement for new drains.
The bill also would allow for blueberry farming to take place in new areas as long as the farming does not alter the hydrology of the landscape.
“They would not be changing it to a non-wetland status,” Smego said. “Essentially, they would just be changing scrub trees, if you will, to blueberry bushes. The flood retention value would be retained, some wildlife value would be retained.”
In order to plant a wetland with blueberries, a farmer would have to sign a conservation easement with the state that he or she would farm the land with blueberries in perpetuity, and if they stop farming, they would let the ground revert to wetland, Smego said.
Altering wetlands is what makes Grenetta Thomassey, program director for Petoskey’s Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, uneasy.
“It’s death by a thousand paper cuts, the way the bill is now,” Thomassey said. “The health of water actually depends upon the hard work the wetlands do around the Great Lakes.”
According to the state Department of Natural Resource’s website, 11 million acres of wetlands existed before Europeans settled Michigan. Now, that number has been reduced to less than three million acres.
A particular area of concern for Thomassey is that the bill defines which wetlands will be regulated. Currently, wetlands within 1,000 feet of a Great Lake or 500 feet of an inland lake must be regulated — areas important for water recharge. Under the bill, the state Department of Environmental Quality would have to establish that there is no hydrologic connection between the land in question and the body of water — a process Clift says could take months.
“It’s really only possible to make that determination six months a year. During the winter months, it’s impossible,” he said. “It would create a lot of work for the department with no real benefit to the environment.”
The EPA will have to review the bill in order to make sure the changes are in compliance with federal wetlands regulations.
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