Republicans are all about draining the swamp and we’re not talking about Washington, D.C.
Here in Wisconsin, they’re once again pressing ahead with plans to roll back protections for an estimated 1 million acres of wetlands to open areas for more home construction, business operations and farming.
That’s 1 million acres out of 5 million acres of wetlands in the state, which would be 20 percent. That’s a lot.
Most of those 5 million acres are regulated by federal laws which apply to wetlands which have a direct surface connection to a navigable lake or river. The GOP-backed legislation, which was backed 6-3 along party lines last week by an Assembly committee and is expected to go to the full Assembly this month, targets “isolated wetlands” which are governed by the state DNR and include shallow marshes, bogs, potholes, woodland depressions and even fields that may only be wet from rain or snowmelt part of the year.
And we have seen some bizarre cases in recent years where a company — Menard’s in Eau Claire comes to mind — was initially precluded from expanding an existing operation into a neighboring cornfield because it flooded in the spring and drew hundreds of migrating geese to its “shores” for a brief period. In Green Bay, there was opposition to development near Lambeau Field because it impacted a small wetland — even though it was between the Interstate highway and the football stadium.
So, yes, we understand some of the frustration of builders and business that have struggled with state requirements to mitigate damages to wetlands by either contributing to a fund to restore wetlands or create 1.2 acres of wetlands within the same watershed for every acre destroyed.
At the January hearing, state Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, said businesses in small towns and rural areas can’t expand because of the mitigation costs. “This bill is absolutely critical for rural areas that are struggling to develop with their limited resources,” he said.
In fact, the current bill is toned down from an initial proposal last fall that would have allowed developers to fill isolated wetlands anywhere in the state without a permit. That drew outrage from conservation and wildlife groups across the state.
Under the current proposal, mitigation costs would still be lowered. One of the changes would exempt one acre or less of wetlands in urban areas from the mitigation requirement. Another would allow filling up to three acres of wetlands to be used for farming use and would only require 1.5 acres to be mitigated.
We remain worried about the potential scope of such legislation and how it would impact the environment.
We understand the concerns of wildlife groups like Ducks Unlimited who say it would have serious impacts on waterfowl habitat and hurt fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians — all of which contribute to the biodiversity of the state.
But we’re even more concerned about the impacts on Wisconsin’s waters. Those “isolated” swamps, bogs and little marshlands do some heavy lifting in keeping the state’s waters clean by acting as filtering agents to remove pollutants and keep them from entering the groundwater. During spring runoff and periods of heavy rain they serve as flood protection barriers and temporarily store waters — again keeping often polluted surface water from flowing to lakes and streams unabated.
Mother Nature often finds its own way to enforce its will and we don’t want that urban area bog to be paved over if it means that surface water or ground water is going to end up in a neighboring basement.
We would hope the builders and conservationists — and the Republicans in the Legislature — can find some middle ground on this marshy dispute, one that recognizes both the pressures on builders and the pressures on the environment.