A Senate committee gave the go-ahead Monday for Indiana farmers and property developers to drain up to 80% of the state’s remaining wetlands.

Senate Bill 389, sponsored by state Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, would delete all state regulations on wetlands in Indiana not subject to federal oversight, also known as isolated wetlands.

Supporters of the measure claim the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has been inconsistent in its regulation of state wetlands, doling out hefty penalties for draining wetlands without permission and requiring authorized wetland fills be replaced with new wetlands elsewhere.

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The majority of the IDEM complaints presented to the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee stemmed from the 2013-17 administration of Republican Gov. Mike Pence. Though some also began under current Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

In addition to scrapping state wetland regulations, and allowing the unlimited draining of wetlands lacking federal protection, the legislation immediately would terminate all ongoing penalty proceedings for violations underway through IDEM or in the courts.

Opponents of the measure, including IDEM and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said wetland preservation is essential for water filtration, water storage, groundwater replenishment, maintaining natural habitat and flood control.

They noted Hoosiers already have drained 85% of the state’s historical wetlands, including the Grand Kankakee Marsh in Northwest Indiana, and further wetland elimination will leave Indiana ill-prepared for the greater rainfall expected in years ahead due to climate change.

“There is inherent value in preserving Indiana’s wetlands,” said state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes. “There has always been a bipartisan recognition that that is a goal of the Legislature — and that goes back 90 years.”

“To vote for this bill is to deny the goal of preservation.”

The Republican-controlled committee ultimately voted along party lines, 8-3, to advance the wetland elimination proposal to the full Senate.
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