Wetlands, lakes would lose protections under Michigan bill

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan legislators were poised Tuesday to remove legal protections from many of the state’s wetlands and other inland waterways, which provide wildlife habitat and perform vital tasks such as preventing floods.

A bill approved by a House committee would eliminate a requirement to obtain state permits before dredging, filling or otherwise degrading many waterways.

A floor vote was expected Wednesday. If approved, the measure would be returned to the Senate, which previously approved it, for consideration of minor changes made by the House.

At least 550,000 acres of wetlands would be vulnerable under the proposal, according to an analysis by the state Department of Environmental Quality. Also losing protection would be 4,200 of Michigan’s 11,000 lakes.

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Those totals could jump significantly because the measure also would tie Michigan’s definition of regulated waters to federal policy, which President Donald Trump’s administration this month proposed weakening. Up to 3 million acres of wetlands — nearly half of the state’s total — no longer would be shielded if the proposed Trump regulation takes effect, along with 21,600 of Michigan’s 36,000 miles of streams, the DEQ said.

The state measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, “substantially changes Michigan’s definitions of wetlands, lakes and streams,” the DEQ analysis said, adding that those provisions “have provided clear, predictable and stable regulation in Michigan for 40 years.”

Business and agriculture groups endorsed the bill during a House committee hearing, saying it would clarify which waters are subject to regulation and ease burdens on landowners.

“This is trying to set up a process to level the playing field between citizens, farmers and small business owners when they’re having to deal with a very well-financed, powerful agency that often understands that they can just run out the clock on people’s legal costs and just offer them a take-it-or-leave-it resolution or nothing at all,” said Charlie Owen, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Scientists describe wetlands as “nature’s kidneys” because they filter pollutants that otherwise would flow into lakes and streams. They’re also home to a rich variety of birds and other wildlife and provide spawning areas for fish.

But pro-development and property-rights advocates contend regulators have overstepped their bounds by shielding small wetlands of little ecological value, particularly those that run dry at times and aren’t directly connected to larger, navigable waterways.

“We believe this legislation is a step forward in clarifying Michigan’s obligations to administer the federal program while allowing for the state to determine our policy focus for state-only wetlands,” said Matt Smego of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Michigan and New Jersey are the only two states allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency to administer federal wetland rules. But environmentalists warned EPA might revoke Michigan’s authorization if the bill is enacted because it so significantly loosens state protections.

“We are already out of compliance and have been for some time,” said Tom Zimnicki of the Michigan Environmental Council. “If there is a desire to bring clarity to the process, this bill is not the way to do that. This is doing surgery on a toe with a chainsaw.”

Environmentalists urged outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the bill.

Michigan already has lost more than half of its original wetlands and the proposed legislation “is a direct threat to the few that remain,” said Rebeccah Sanders, the National Audubon Society’s vice president for the Great Lakes region. “That is too high a cost for birds, wildlife and people.”

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Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.

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