A federal review of the state’s water protection measures has spurred several proposed changes in how wetlands are regulated under the guidance of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
The proposed changes, which include revamping some of the rules regarding wetland protection and permitting processes under Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, are necessary for the state to retain its ability to oversee wetland permitting under the federal Clean Water Act. However, some environmentalists are concerned that the proposed changes could jeopardize some of the state’s most vulnerable land.
“The EPA conducted an audit of our program and found we have deficiencies,” said Jennifer McKay, policy specialist for the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. “Some changes are included that we support. Unfortunately, other provisions were included.”
The EPA found 22 instances where the state’s regulations fall short of those required under the Clean Water Act. Internal changes by the DEQ addressed 19 issues, with the remaining deficiencies requiring changes by state lawmakers. Those changes relate to exemptions for utilities, drains, and agriculture practices regulated under the state’s environmental protection laws.
Failure to address the EPA’s concerns would require wetland permit applicants to apply to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the DEQ, rather than allowing applicants to submit only one wetland permit application to the DEQ, as is currently the case.
In order to meet the federal requirements, state Rep. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) introduced legislation this month to establish uniform application fees and change exemptions from permitting requirements. The bill, (HB 5897) would also create a wetland mitigation bank funding program to provide loans to eligible municipalities to help create new wetlands when others are lost.
McKay said the watershed council opposes the bill as currently written because some of its provisions would reduce the amount of wetlands required to be replaced when some are lost due to actions conducted in wetland areas.
Drew YoungeDyke, a policy specialist for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said that group has yet to oppose or support the bill.
Funding for the Wetland Mitigation Bank Fund Program would come from the Strategic Water Quality Initiatives Fund, and up to $10 million would be authorized to be spent on the program under companion legislation (HB 5673). That bill would also expand the strategic water fund to provide assistance to local governments to increase rainwater, sewage, and septic systems to improve water quality.
The wetland banking program would allow those destroying wetlands to buy into preservation of an existing wetland in the same watershed, according to the EPA.
“We are embracing mitigation banks,” said Maggie Cox, legislative director for the DEQ. “It allows (permit applicants) to buy into (wetland) areas that are already created. Under current law, if you impact more than a third of an acre of wetland, you have to create two times the size impacted … you can’t preserve it, you actually have to create it, which is expensive and not very successful.”