Large chunk of Indiana wetlands could soon be eliminated

NOW: Large chunk of Indiana wetlands could soon be eliminated

The majority of state-regulated wetlands in Indiana could be eliminated by builders and farmers without a permit or mitigation, thanks to a new measure that the State Senate sent to Governor Eric Holcomb’s desk last week.

Environmentalists say if the measure becomes law, it will have disastrous consequences across the Hoosier State, and right here in Michiana.

Gary Lamberti, a Professor of Biological Studies at The University of Notre Dame, says the value of isolated wetlands goes far beyond the beauty on the outside. For starters, they are biodiversity hotspots.

“They pack more species of plants and animals into these environments than any other place on the planet,” Lamberti explained.

Beyond the habitat created for animals like ducks and geese, isolated wetlands act as the kidneys of the countryside…so to speak.

“They are filtering out the toxic chemicals and providing cleaner water for the ground water. And most Hoosiers get their water for drinking from the ground water,” Lamberti said.

While wetlands keep toxic chemicals out, they keep extra water in. The sponge-like habitats play a crucial role in keeping floodwaters at bay.

“When we’re trying to protect our lands, our lives, and our economy in Indiana, these are taking up those floodwaters and releasing them very slowly out into the environment so that places don’t flood,” Lamberti said.

Over the last 240 years, Hoosiers have drained about 85 percent of Indiana’s historical wetlands. Many experts are concerned that if more isolated wetlands are eliminated, Michiana won’t be able to absorb future bigger rainfall events exacerbated by climate change.

“Wetlands are really the last buffer from flooding in the state of Indiana, so we should be really interested in preserving these environments for purely that reason,” Lamberti added.

Isolated wetlands also fight climate change in another way: by storing carbon.

“Carbon that would normally leave as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is stored in these wetlands. So, we don’t have as many emissions that result in global warming,” Lamberti explained.

The measure, which is likely to become law even if Governor Holcomb vetoes it, would put a large chunk of the remaining 800,000 acres of Indiana wetlands on the chopping block.

There are three categories of state wetlands in Indiana. Class I wetlands are the most common, with the classification covering over 400,000 acres, or just over half of the wetlands still out there. These wetlands are described as having minimal habitat and hydrologic functions. All of these Class I wetlands would be able to be developed without a permit or offsetting mitigation, regardless of how big they are.

Class II wetlands make up about a third of Indiana's wetlands. These areas are described as supporting moderate wildlife or aquatic habitat and hydrologic functions. They could also be eliminated with no permit or mitigation, if the site is less than 3/8 of an acre in size or less than three quarters of an acre in size inside a municipality.

Class III wetlands are still protected from development, but they are quite rare, with just about 1-3 percent of state wetlands falling under this category. These wetlands are mostly untouched by human activities.

The remaining roughly 120,000 acres of wetlands are federally protected, and can't be touched by the state.

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