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Indiana Conservation Groups Defend State’s Wetlands That Lost Protection
Indiana Ag Connection - 02/21/2024

About 250 acres of Indiana wetlands have been lost in the two years since wetland protections were eased, according to the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Since the 2021 law passed, mitigation requirements have decreased. And Magnolia Land Partners, a private company that helps farmers restore wetlands, has lost business.

“Not only do we lose a lot of potential wetland sites that need mitigation from a business standpoint, but that’s also a huge loss from a restoration standpoint because the ecological value is essentially cut by more than half in the state of Indiana,” said Nikki Palella, Magnolia’s environmental market analyst.

Essential for balancing drainage and water storage, wetlands once were about 25 percent of Indiana’s landscape. About 85 percent of those have since been drained, mostly to make way for farming and development.

Wetlands are an economic asset. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates that one acre of wetland annually provides $248 in water purification, $2,270 in water storage, $1,055 in erosion prevention and nitrate removal equivalent to that found in runoff from 100 acres of cropland.

Wetland protection policies vary within the eight Great Lakes states. According to a 2023 Earth Justice report, Indiana has moderately protective laws that still put wetlands at risk. In the report, Illinois’ laws ranked the weakest and New York and Minnesota’s ranked the strongest in the region.

“The Midwest is a water-rich environment and as the climate changes, that’s going to be a positive,” said John Ketzenberger, director of government relations of The Nature Conservancy’s Indiana chapter.

“There are a lot of places in the country where there isn’t adequate water for survival,” Ketzenberger said. “Now’s the time for good public policy that supports water quantity and water quality.”

Cutting costs

Indiana environmental legislation protects a narrow scope of wetlands. The 2021 law repealed wetland protections from 2005 by loosening the permit requirements for developers.

Over 8,000 acres of wetlands exist in Indiana without any protection now, Ketzenberger said. “That’s not a good thing. These wetlands perform an important function on the landscape and if you lose them, they’re gone.”

Indiana mandates a wetland classification system developed in a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case: Class I are areas where people disturbed half of the wetland. Class II areas are isolated and support moderate habitat or hydrological functions. Class III are isolated areas that are minimally or completely undisturbed, including rare wetland types, like acid bogs.

“This 2021 bill has eliminated Class I protection, reduced it for Class II and essentially left it intact for Class III,” Ketzenberger said.

A bill moving Class III wetlands down to Class II advanced through the state Senate recently. It would, further reduce wetland protections, allowing developers to avoid costly permitting and mitigation.

“We look at any rule or regulation and what its impact is going to be on housing affordability across the state of Indiana,” said Rick Wajda, chief executive officer of the Indiana Builders Association that supported the legislation. “On a national level, we know that roughly 24 percent of the cost of the house is due to regulations at the local, state and federal level.”

When developers choose to build on land that requires permitting to jump protections, the cost per acre to develop that land increases.

“Across all areas of the government, there are ways that we can reduce those regulatory costs and burdens on potential homebuyers to allow more Hoosiers to be able to afford a new home,” Wajda said.

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