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A new Indiana bill will weaken protections over wetlands

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new law in Indiana will open up more of the state's protected wetlands for development. As Ethan Sandweiss of member station WFIU reports, environmental groups are worried that the measure will harm the state's wildlife and water quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ETHAN SANDWEISS, BYLINE: John Lawrence guides me through ankle-deep water surrounded by high reeds at Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve in southern Indiana. He's CEO of Sycamore Land Trust, a nonprofit restoring these wetlands.

JOHN LAWRENCE: And then if you just look a little bit to your right and up, you can see another adult bald eagle on a tree snag.

SANDWEISS: Oh, wow.

LAWRENCE: You see it there?

SANDWEISS: I do.

LAWRENCE: Cool.

SANDWEISS: Before European settlement, nearly a quarter of Indiana was wetland. Since then, it's lost 85% to development and agriculture. Areas like Beanblossom Bottoms that are owned by land trusts are among the few protected wetlands in the state after a series of policy decisions in recent years. State lawmakers removed protections for many wetlands in 2021, and this year they shrank that number even more. Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council, says the destruction of wetlands has sped up in recent years.

INDRA FRANK: During that two-year period, we lost at least 261 million gallons of water storage from the state because of the wetlands that were destroyed during that time.

SANDWEISS: Besides being a habitat for plant and animal species, wetlands provide benefits such as water retention during droughts, water filtration and flood control. The town of Tipton, Ind., was heavily flooded in 2013 after wetlands were removed from the Cicero Creek Watershed upstream.

FRANK: During dry periods of the year, wetlands rerelease water. Really, wetlands are the most cost-effective stormwater management infrastructure there is.

SANDWEISS: A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer removed most federal protections for isolated wetlands, leaving it up to the states. Environmentalists and developers both say the system is unclear and makes permitting difficult. Builders who support the new law say it provides new opportunities for construction and could drive down home prices, which have still risen since Indiana first relaxed wetland protections three years ago. The bill incentivizes developers to replace wetlands they clear elsewhere. Rick Wajda, CEO of the Indiana Builders Association.

RICK WAJDA: We look at every issue as ways to - how can we reduce those regulatory costs on our builders, which means that they may be able to bring a product to the market at a lower price and pass along those savings to potential home buyers.

SANDWEISS: The law's remaining protections are mostly for ecosystems that are, quote, "undisturbed or minimally disturbed by human activity." Rachele Baker of the Indiana Wetlands Association says that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

RACHELE BAKER: This is Indiana. The chances of you running into one of those wetland types that has not already been more than minimally impacted is pretty slim.

SANDWEISS: Representatives from the building industry and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management drafted the bill last summer. Advocates say the bill was rushed through the statehouse and didn't take enough input from environmental organizations and wetland experts. Republican Senator Sue Glick of Lagrange was one of the few voices of dissent in her party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUE GLICK: I will not be voting for this bill because I think it has some serious shortcomings, which might have been resolved had everyone been a part of the discussions.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEESE HONKING)

SANDWEISS: Walking here in Beanblossom Bottoms, John Lawrence with the Sycamore Land Trust has no comment on the new law. He says his organization doesn't get into politics. He's focused on saving what he can.

LAWRENCE: Preserving wetlands like this is - large as it seems when you walk around, it's just a fraction of what would have been here a couple of hundred years ago - all the more important for us to, as a land trust, do what we can to protect these special natural areas.

SANDWEISS: For NPR News, I'm Ethan Sandweiss in Bloomington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ethan Sandweiss