INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A bill removing some protections from Indiana’s already diminished wetlands was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb Thursday despite widespread criticism that it could damage waterways, wildlife and vegetation.
The wetlands measure passed out of the Legislature April 14 and has sparked bipartisan opposition within the Republican-dominated Legislature. Retroactive as of Jan. 1, it eliminates a 2003 law that requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue permits for construction and development in state-regulated wetlands and end enforcement proceedings against landowners accused of violating current law.
Holcomb’s signature followed his own reservations earlier in the Legislative session, when he said that the wetlands repeal was a cause for “concern.” He further allowed staff at the natural resources and environmental management departments to oppose the bill in hearings in January, where state regulatory officials argued that the wetlands must be protected because they purify water, provide habitat for wildlife and reduce flood risks.
The governor’s office did not immediately reply to requests for comment Thursday on the bill’s signage.
Months-long pushback against the bill prompted lawmakers to scale back the intended repeal earlier this month, reducing wetland permitting regulations for croplands and temporary streams, rather than for all wetlands.
All Democratic members of the General Assembly, as well as a member of the Senate Republican Caucus, urged the Republican governor to veto the bill last week, citing “long term consequences” and a need for “more in-depth study than what was accomplished in limited committee times during a legislative session in a pandemic.”
In a separate letter delivered to Holcomb’s office Monday, more than 100 organizations called on the governor to veto the bill they claimed will “cost the state dearly,” when accounting for increased flooding and erosion expenses, loss of groundwater recharge, fewer tourism opportunities and loss of diverse wildlife “that makes Indiana special.”
“This bill opens the door to irrevocable impacts on our rich natural history and puts the wellbeing of millions of Hoosiers at risk, now and well into the future,” the letter said. “Indiana needs a thorough, inclusive, and deliberative approach to changing the law on such a vital natural resource.”
Republican bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors argued throughout the Legislative session that vague language in the current state law, over-enforcement by state regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs prompted the drafting. They contend removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.
The proposal comes as President Joe Biden’s administration reviews the previous administration’s rules such as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which narrowed the definition of waterways that fall under federal protection.
Indiana originially had over twelve million acres of wetlands, but now only has around 900,000 acres. Betsy Yankowiak with the Little River Wetlands Project said they are disappointed with the decision to pass the bill, particularly because Indiana legislatures are the ones who chose to implement protections after the federal government stopped protecting wetlands in 2003.
“We don’t want to degrade our state,” said Yankowiak. “We don’t want to lose these natural areas because everybody wants to go kayaking in the river and so if we lose our weltands we lost the filtration that keeps our rivers cealn and so we need to be putting weltands back into our landscape, not taking away these protections.”
Yankowiak said one good thing about the law is it allows the state to create a task force with representatives of both sides to figure out what the best path forward is. She hopes they will make a meaningful effort to come to an agreement but says any changes will have to go through the legislative process again.
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