About a half-million acres of wetlands in Michigan would no longer be protected by the state under a bill considered by a Michigan Senate committee Wednesday.
Senate Bill 1211, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, would redefine which wetlands require state Department of Environmental Quality permission to modify or fill — including doubling the size threshold at which regulation is required, from 5 acres to 10 acres.
That would remove regulation from 70,000 wetlands statewide, totaling about a half-million acres, according to a DEQ analysis of the bill. In most Michigan counties, it would include about half of their remaining wetlands.
“Without regulatory protections, these wetlands, lakes and streams can be filled, dredged, and constructed on without a permit.” said Tom Zimnicki, agriculture policy director for the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council, based in Lansing.
“Think you have lakefront property? If this bill becomes law, your house could be facing a parking lot instead of a beautiful lake.”
Critics contend the bill would harm a huge portion of what remains of Michigan’s already depleted wetlands, vital to slowing storm water runoff; filtering pollution from groundwater, streams, rivers and lakes, and providing habitat for endangered and other species.
Casperson, however, counters that the bill’s intent is to alleviate undue burdens on private property owners with small, relatively insignificant wetlands.
“This is for the average citizen that is getting mowed over,” who has a marshy area “on 3 acres, doing nothing, that isn’t contiguous to anything,” yet is inhibited or forbidden by DEQ wetlands enforcement from developing his or her property, Casperson said during a hearing of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs.
Todd Losee, president of the nonprofit Michigan Wetlands Association, is concerned by the bill.
“The small wetlands are particularly important, especially because a lot of them are located in the urban and suburban areas, where we’ve fragmented the landscape,” he said. “In a lot of urban and suburban communities, all that’s left for open space are these little wetland areas.”
The federal government, through the Clean Water Act, typically regulates wetlands nationwide. But Michigan, in 1979, became the first state given authority to administer its own wetlands protection. The state remains one of only two that self-regulates its wetlands, along with New Jersey.
A provision of that self-governance is that Michigan’s regulations must be at least as stringent as the federal government’s — and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already declared areas where Michigan’s regulation is not complying.
“This further weakens our program and puts us further out of compliance,” Zimnicki said in testimony to the committee.
That could prompt the feds to retake control of oversight, he said.
“If we lost the program, right now we’re looking at 30 to 40 days for a (DEQ wetlands) permit review — it’s not uncommon for a (federal) Army Corps of Engineers permit review to take six months to a year,” Zimnicki said.
Both Zimnicki and Jennifer McKay, policy director for the Petoskey-based environmental nonprofit Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, said their respective agencies are prepared to push for a return of wetlands regulation to federal authority should the Legislature pass Casperson’s bill.
“If Michigan’s legislators choose to show they no longer care about wetlands, and no longer wish to protect them, then Michigan shouldn’t be regulating them,” McKay said.
Casperson disputed that he and supporters of the bill don’t care about wetlands “because I might not agree with an environmental group about how far we go.”
Charles Owens, state director for the nonprofit National Federation of Independent Businesses in Michigan based in Lansing, expressed support for the bill.
“I am appalled at the disregard for private property rights that I’ve seen in this state,” he said. “People talking about how we will lose our little lakes … like they own them, like they are their lakes. Well, they’re not. They’re private property. The whole idea that all the land in the state of Michigan belongs to everybody is misguided.”
Casperson said he agreed with some of his opponents that Michigan needs to maintain its protection of vital wetlands.
“But not to the nth degree, where it’s every inch of soil, at the expense of everybody’s individual property rights,” he said. “That’s what they’re doing to us, and that’s what we’re trying to rectify.”