The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 08, 2021 1:00 am

General Assembly

Lawmakers dial back wetlands deregulation

CASEY SMITH | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers on Wednesday watered down a controversial bill seeking to remove protections from Indiana's already diminished wetlands amid mounting criticism that the proposal could cause damage to the state's waterways, wildlife and vegetation.

If passed, the measure would eliminate a 2003 law that requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue permits in a state-regulated wetland, and it would end enforcement proceedings against landowners who are allegedly violating current law.

An amendment approved unanimously by the House environmental affairs committee Wednesday scales back the intended repeal, however.

The amended bill no longer excludes all classes of wetlands from permitting requirements, but instead provides specific permitting exemptions for croplands and excludes ephemeral, or temporary, streams from being categorized as wetlands.

The bill change also alters mitigation requirements, which Republican Rep. Harold Slager, of Schererville, said is meant to help property owners cut down costs associated with wetlands upkeep.

The bill now heads to the House floor. Slager said the issue has also been recommended to a legislative study committee “to see what else we might do” with future wetlands legislation.

Although the bill still broadly reduces wetlands protections, the Hoosier Environmental Council called the amended bill “much less damaging” than the Senate-passed version.

The proposal comes as President Joe Biden's administration begins review of the previous administration's rules including the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which narrowed the definition of waterways that fall under federal protection.

Republican bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors said they drafted the bill because of vague language in the state law, over-enforcement by state regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs. They contend that removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.

Environmental groups and state regulatory officials have pushed back, arguing that because wetlands provide water purification, habitat for wildlife and reduced flood risks, it's critical they're protected.

The proposed rollbacks sparked bipartisan opposition. Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said lawmakers aimed to “narrow the scope of the bill and addresses some concerns” before taking a full chamber vote on the proposal.

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