State Legislature Considers Bill That Removes Protections for Some Wetlands

Dec 19, 2017

A bill floating through the Legislature would eliminate protection of some wetlands in Wisconsin. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steinecke, who authored the bill, says the measure would free developers from unnecessary regulations, when parcels have no environmental value.

Others are concerned Wisconsin stands to lose natural pockets of marshy earth that soak up storm water as well as provide habitat.

About 80 percent of the state’s wetlands are connected to surface water – streams or lakes. That 80 percent falls under the scrutiny of the Army Corps of Engineers.

It’s the remaining 20 percent –that have no surface water connection -  that the proposed bill covers. Protections for isolated, or remnant, wetlands would be removed, allowing for the land to be developed.

Alice Thompson and Ryan Wallin at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Ryan Wallin, with the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, says wetlands – large and small – are crucial to ecology and wildlife. “It’s simple. Nature is phenomenal. When the system is fully intact everything is working in harmony."

Wetlands act as natural sponges. They absorb and slow down water, thus reducing the risk of flooding in huge storms.

And, Wallin says, the natural systems clean the water “as it slowly trickles through the soils into the groundwater."

"These things are great for filter that stuff out and getting all of the contaminants out," he adds.

Biologist Alice Thompson, who has spent years assessing the value of wetlands to their surroundings, says calling a wetland isolated is misleading. 

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Take the leftovers of the Ice Age for example.  

“The glaciers receded here 10,000 years ago, there’s all kinds of pockets that were ice blogs that were dropped off by the glacier and slowly, slowly melted down and formed these pocket depressions, so many of our bogs, these are in many cases isolated wetlands," Thompson explains. "The protection would be completely lost on a state level if this change in legislation goes through. You cannot replace a bog wetland."

Thompson fears - in the bill authors’ eagerness to simplify environmental permitting - that lands people cherish for hunting, fishing and even hiking stand to suffer.

Rep. Jim Steinecke says he recognizes the value of wetlands that provide wildlife habitat. “There are some wetlands that are nonfederal in nature and do serve an environmental purpose that are habitats for ducks and geese and other wildlife. The intent of this bill is never to affect those wetlands."

He says the bill only would allow projects to be built atop, what he calls, isolated scraps of farm fields.

“They’re currently cropped, so either they’re going to be continued to be cropped into perpetuity and will never be anything anybody would consider a habitat, or at some point they’ll turn into land for development,” Steinecke says.

Under his proposal, he says, if people want to develop those parcels, they first would have to confirm that they're not protected under federal guidelines.

The goal of the bill, Steinecke says, is to free landowners and developers from a time-consuming and expensive permitting process. By doing so, he says the bill will address frustrations he’s heard statewide.

Steinecke says he plans to add amendments to his bill to assuage concerns about the potential loss of wildlife habitat, and he assures that if a project disturbs a wetland, developers will have to create a new wetland area.

A hearing Thursday will give citizens a chance to weigh in.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.