Wetlands are the kidneys of Indiana, filtering out the bad stuff we don’t want flowing though the veins of our waterways. Wetlands improve water quality by trapping sediment, filtering pollutants and replenishing groundwater. They also reduce flooding by absorbing storm water that would otherwise spill out of ditches and overrun the banks of rivers and streams.

Unfortunately, those working to save wetlands now find themselves at odds with home builders. The fight takes the form of state Senate Bill 389, which was approved on the floor by a vote of 29-19 and passed along to the House. The measure would reverse a 2003 law that established state regulation of Indiana’s isolated wetlands, areas that comprise as much as 90% of wetlands in the state.

The other 10% of wetlands — those deemed Waters of the U.S. because they’re connected to streams, lakes and rivers — are protected by the federal Clean Water Act.

Currently, if Hoosier property owners want to fill in isolated wetlands, they have to go through a permitting process that requires the creation of another wetland in the watershed to mitigate the environmental loss.

If SB 389 passes, property owners will be allowed to bulldoze away with less regard to the impact on local water quality.

Rick Wajda, CEO of the Indiana Builders Association, attributes his organization’s support of SB 389 to rising housing demands. In 2003 when the state wetlands law was passed, he notes, Indiana was in a housing recession. But now demand is outpacing supply, pushing prices up.

Removing wetlands regulation would help to keep prices for construction of new homes down.

Wetland mitigation under current state law can be expensive, as much as $120,000 to address an acre of wetland, Wajda said.

But consider this: That same acre of wetland can absorb as much as 1.5 million gallons of water, according to Julie Borgmann, executive director of the Red-tail Land Conservancy.

More than 40 organizations across the state have publicly opposed SB 389. Gov. Eric Holcomb has concerns, too.

“We need to be confident that any changes in the law avoid harming drinking water quality, increasing the potential for flooding, or hurting the wildlife habitats used by our anglers and hunters,” Holcomb said in an interview with the Indiana Environmental Reporter.

The home builders association, according to Wajda, would consider a compromise in the bill to reserve some protections for isolated wetlands.

That compromise would need to go a long way toward maintaining a high level of state regulation.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management reports that 85% of Indiana’s original wetlands have already been destroyed.

How much more of our state’s kidneys can we afford to lose?
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