Wetlands bill passes Assembly despite conservationists’ concerns
MADISON Assembly Republicans passed a contentious bill Tuesday that would help developers win wetland construction permits from the state, achieving one of the GOP’s key goals for this legislative session despite concerns from conservationists that the bill clears the way for destroying untold acres of wetlands and the fragile wildlife they shelter
Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), chairman of the state Senate’s Natural Resources and Environment Committee, had said the mitigation plan he authored won’t necessarily increase the building on Wisconsin wetlands, but others aren’t so sure.
Wisconsin business groups have been pushing hard for the bill as a means to help companies expand. Senate Republicans passed the measure in a messy early morning session last week marked by protesters’ cat calls from the chamber’s overhead galleries. No protesters disrupted the Assembly proceedings Tuesday, though, and debate lasted less than an hour before Republicans passed the bill on a voice vote.
The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. The governor has said he supports the plan. He issued a statement saying the bill balances the needs of businesses and the environment.
“I look forward to signing this bill into law and working with the Department of Natural Resources to implement this pro-growth, pro-environment piece of legislation,” Walker said.
Wetlands soak up rainwater, helping to prevent flooding—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that an acre of wetlands can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater—and naturally filter pollutants from runoff before they reach lakes, rivers and streams. They also serve as home to myriad wildlife, including ducks, fish and reptiles, making their protection a priority among conservationists.
According to DNR data, Wisconsin has lost 5 million acres of wetlands—nearly half of the wetlands in the state—to construction and agriculture over the last 150 years. The DNR cites its current permitting process, which stresses avoiding and minimizing damage, as key to reversing the trend.
The bill would create a two-tiered construction permit system for wetlands. Developers could apply to the DNR for a general permit or an individual permit for more specialized projects.
Individual permit applicants would have to submit mitigation plans. The plans could include purchasing credits from groups or entities that have already restored wetlands, playing the DNR to support its wetland restoration work, or enhancing or restoring other wetlands within a half-mile of the project or within the projects’ watershed.
Submitting a plan wouldn’t guarantee a permit, but it would give developers another way to show the DNR they could offset their projects’ impact and bolster their case for a permit.
Environmentalists have balked at the mitigation language. They maintain mitigation work doesn’t always result in quality wetland restoration and fear the DNR will feel pressure to stop pushing applicants to avoid or minimize damage.
Legislators and aides were bracing for an hours-long debate in the Assembly, but it was over before it really began. Republicans moved the bill to the beginning of the agenda, which seemed to catch Democrats off-guard. They scurried around the chamber, trying to prepare amendments. Finally they gathered themselves to mount an offensive, saying the bill would destroy duck habitat, hurting hunting in the state, and lead to more flooding.
“Quit kicking flood victims in the teeth every chance you get,” Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison said. “Because that’s all this bill does.”
The debate hit a lull after only a half hour. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, called for a voice vote. Republicans control the chamber, reducing the vote to little more than a formality. Not Republicans even rose to defend the measure.
Democrats demanded Republicans redo the vote with a roll call to get every lawmaker’s position on record. Rather than vote again on the floor, Kramer agreed to accept a list of how each Democrat would have voted and record it in the Assembly journal.
Hulsey issued a statement later Tuesday evening mocking the bill as the “Flood Our Families Act.”