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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Wading through Indiana’s wetlands

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Indiana’s wetlands have been a topic of debate during the 2024 legislative session, with the environmental bill Act (HEA) 1383 fast-tracked through both chambers before recess.

HEA 1383 would reduce the number of wetlands that are protected in Indiana by changing the definition of the Class III wetlands, which is the most protected class.

Indiana’s wetlands are grouped into three tiers. Only the highest ranked Class III wetlands receive full protections. Class II wetlands have fewer protections and Class I have none.

RELATED: Sackett v EPA: One big win for real estate developers, one huge loss in the fight to protect Indiana’s wetlands

“They were seeing so much opposition that they rushed it through to kind of quiet the resistance. Then it had to be signed by the governor. At the same time though, a lot of people have learned about wetlands,” said Sam Carpenter, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Wetlands

Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or intermittently,  according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Builders and developers support the new measure, saying it would reduce costs and prevent permitting delays, while environmental advocates like Carpenter say the bill further endangers the state’s wetlands.

Gershman Partners, an Indianapolis-based company, along with Citimark Management Co. plan to build a $174-million retail area in Franklin Township, which would affect approximately 45 acres of wetlands across the development site.

Gershman Partners could not be reached for comment about current legislation.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources said wetland communities in the state include bogs, dune and swale, fens, flatwoods, floodplain forests, marshes, ponds, lakes, sedge meadows, seeps, streams, creeks, major rivers and swamps.

Wetlands play an important role in nature’s ecosystem by providing habitable areas for different species and helping to soak up any rainwater to prevent flooding.

This also recharges the state’s groundwater resources, which is essential for Indiana’s water supplies, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Despite bipartisan opposition, HEA 1383 has been signed by the Governor Eric Holcomb.

This is the first bill in the 2024 session to be signed into law by the governor.

Wetlands legislation

Indiana previously had some of the more protective wetland laws in the U.S., with law that was been in place for almost two decades until 2021.

More than 260 acres of Indiana’s wetlands have been lost since SEA 389 took effect, according to 14 Hoosier environmental groups.

The bill removed all state protections for Class I wetlands, which made up more than half of the state’s remaining wetlands.

“This is on top of the Supreme Court decision that happened in the spring of 2023 that removed all federal protection for what they call isolated wetlands. Isolated wetlands are wetlands that aren’t connected to another body of water,” said Carpenter.

“So, we lost state protection with SEA 389 in 2021, we lost federal protections in 2023 and now, in 2024, we’ve lost additional protection for isolated wetlands. This is a problem because Central Indiana is projected to have a shortage of water.

There are other bills going through session that environmental heads support.

Senate Bill 246 would provide a property tax incentive for private landowners to maintain wetlands on their property.

What’s next

By preserving wetlands on their property, owners can do a service for the broader community, since their wetlands help store stormwater that reduces flooding.

This also helps the stormwater soak in and replenish groundwater supplies.
“It hasn’t gotten to the governor’s desk yet, but it will be heading there soon. It did receive strong bipartisan support. So, it was nice to see in a year where we lost more wetland protection that there was bipartisan support on this bill,” said Carpenter.

Delaney Barber, energy and climate manager at HEC, said overall there have been some wins and some losses in legislation, with one of the biggest losses being HEA 1383 moving forward so quickly.

“Our wetlands are getting destroyed at a rapid pace. We really need to be thinking about water more comprehensively. Those are conversations your environmental council is going to continue to have and be advocating for,” said Barber.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON. 

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