The Indiana Senate voted to eliminate protections for state-regulated wetlands last week. Senate Bill 389 passed with a vote of 29-19. The bill is currently in the House awaiting further consideration.
Indiana has already lost more than 85% of its original wetlands, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The Trump administration scrapped federal regulations for wetlands last year, reducing the number of federally protected wetlands in Indiana by nearly two-thirds. The state is now the primary protector of more than 80% of the remaining wetlands.
Senate Bill 389 is a short-sighted attempt to eliminate red tape at the cost of ecological stability.
The bill seeks to remove IDEM’s ability to initiate judicial or administrative proceedings in response to unauthorized activity. Under the current law, individuals and companies must obtain a permit before developing on wetlands. Even when IDEM issues permits, they require developers mitigate their activity by contributing to the creation of a replacement wetland.
Although he ultimately voted against the measure, State Senator David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, described the testimony he witnessed as a question of IDEM’s ability to appropriately issue permits.
Niezgodski detailed one testimony where an individual cleared a lot for farming purposes. He said the farmer claimed he received a greenlight from both the federal and state government before developing. However, IDEM later notified the farmer that he destroyed a protected wetland and litigation ensued.
“It does appear to me that there may be some things that IDEM could do better,” Niezgodski said, “but this bill is not the direction we should take. It should not be addressed in this manner.”
Kate Wiltz, project manager at the Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands and former member of the Monroe County Environmental Commission, is concerned with the burden SB 389 would place on local governments. Putting local officials in charge of enforcement and inspection, instead of IDEM, would require greater funding.
“Passing the responsibility down to the local government isn't always the best choice because of resource issues,” Wiltz said.
She also emphasized the ecological implications of the bill.
“We really don't have any business weakening the protections that are meant to make us more resilient to stressors, like flooding and extreme temperatures, that are absolutely coming our way,” Wiltz said. “And this bill is doing exactly that. It's proposing to take a step backwards on protecting wetlands.”
Wiltz spoke of the critical role wetlands play in all ecosystems, explaining how they work as a natural filter connecting various bodies of water.
Monroe County is especially vulnerable to the implications of wetland loss.
“In Monroe County, and specifically in the City of Bloomington, we derive our water from Lake Monroe,” Wiltz said. “Certainly you've got the direct input from the creeks and the tributaries but we’ve also got what's called karst topography. So underneath our soil, we have limestone as bedrock.”
Wiltz explained that the porous nature of limestone enables water to travel easily underneath the soil. As a consequence of wetland destruction, we could expect more wide-reaching effects of contaminated water and irreparable harm to limestone deposits.
To make matters worse, Wiltz said Lake Monroe is already facing high nutrient loads from runoff. Without wetlands, the problem is only amplified.
Lake Monroe is the sole source of drinking water for 100,000 residents in both Monroe and Brown County and attracts more than one million visitors a year. It holds a variety of species including the federally endangered clubshell mussel and Indiana bat. Wetland destruction would result in harms to the local economy and most importantly the health of both residents and the surrounding ecosystems.
Removing the enforcement mechanism from Indiana’s code renders current protections futile. For a vast majority of wetlands, the current laws are the last line of defense.
Although President Joe Biden is working to strengthen the Clean Water Act and expand federal protections for wetlands, the process may take years.
Niezgodski said the fate of SB 389 is uncertain, but the next few weeks will be telling.
“If [a committee] picks it up and they schedule it for a hearing soon, that's going to give you a good inclination that they intend to move that bill in some fashion,” Niezgodski said.
While wetlands might not be the most attractive feats of nature, they help sustain your favorite destinations. The proposed legislation would leave wetlands defenseless and ultimately the fate of local ecosystems to the will of developers.
Katelyn Balakir (she/her) is studying Policy Analysis and World Political Systems. She is a member of Indiana Model United Nations.