INDIANAPOLIS — 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 Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar issued the following comments on Gov. Holcomb signing the bill:
“It’s surprising and very disappointing that the Governor signed a bill that is likely to have negative impacts on Indiana’s water quality, flood control and quality of place factors that the state needs to attract and retain a skilled workforce. Two state agencies – the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management – were even quite vocal in their opposition.
“It’s unfortunate that legislators chose to rush to action on this matter and not take the proper time to study something that will have such signification ramifications for citizens and businesses, with more than half of the state’s 800,000 acres of wetlands now being eliminated from protection.
“According to the DNR, one acre of wetlands provides $248 in purification services for fresh drinking water, $2,270 in water storage services and $1,055 in erosion prevention services. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that an acre of wetland can store 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater. All of these things will have impacts on Indiana businesses that use water in their processes, not to mention our drinking water utilities. Also, there will be an increased need for infrastructure funding to deal with increased stormwater runoff and flood control as wetlands are eliminated.
“We readily admit Indiana’s longstanding wetlands regulations needed to be improved, but not without proper considerations of the potentially devastating consequences.”