by Charles Collier, The Denmark News
MADISON—The Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill last week loosening restrictions for developing certain wetlands in the state, drawing anger and applause depending on the crowd.
The law currently awaiting Gov. Walker’s signature would not require development permits for non-federal wetlands—about 20% of Wisconsin’s wetlands according to a Dept. of Natural Resources fiscal estimate of the bill.
Wisconsin is one of a handful of states which oversees development of wetlands not protected by the federal Clean Water Act, enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency. This, some say, is for good reason; with a geology carved by glaciers, wetlands may play a more important role here than in other states.
Lynn Persson, a resident near Baraboo, in her testimony opposing the bill cited the breach of Lake Delton and several other flood events in 2008 as reason to caution against eliminating consideration of wetlands. Since 2013, Gov. Walker has issued 11 Emergency Flood declarations stemming from six major rain events and, should the water levels of Lake Michigan, Lake Winnebago, or Lake Mendota rise significantly, Wisconsin populations would again be vulnerable to disaster, she said.
But municipalities and developers have found several inconsistencies and hang ups in trying to navigate the DNR’s compliance rules. For one example, Family Dollar was delayed by at least one year in developing land in Denmark per DNR wetland restrictions. The site was formerly a corn field and had not previously been a wetland, but an additional sliver of land was required to be purchased for the development to continue. No other substantial changes were mandated.
State Rep. Andre Jacque became involved in that process, contesting the DNR’s restrictions. The Assemblyman also added an amendment to the bill which defined, “artificial wetlands” as those being exempt from the same permitting process. These wetlands are, “created by human modifications to the landscape or hydrology,” which the DNR, “has no definitive evidence showing a prior wetland or stream history.”
Steve Uttech of Keller, Inc. testified his support of the bill, referencing a project in Columbus, WI. He said current permitting rules can obfuscate and complicate the process of designing and building and, at least in his case, defeat their very purpose.
“The existing DNR design criteria does not protect wetlands. It eliminates them by starving them,” Uttech said. “We are not allowed to drain water from this parking lot into the wetland. The entire parking lot drains away from the wetland and the water is piped underground to a detention pond…which is lined and is deeper than the bottom of the wetland. This wetland is an island and will dry up within 10 years.”
Other developers and municipalities said the current permitting process can add between $80,000 and $100,000 per-acre in design costs. Combined with additional time needed to satisfy DNR requirements, local economic stability can hang in the balance.
Both successful Assembly and Senate votes were along party lines.