Wetlands update balances development, environment
In 1999, I authored Wisconsin Act 147, creating a wetlands mitigation program within the Department of Natural Resources. The program could be used as a tool for development projects that might affect a nearby wetland. A primary goal of the program was to offset any wetlands lost with a net gain of higher quality wetlands.
The 1999 law created an innovative alternative that could be used to benefit the environment and the economy. With a practical wetland mitigation program in place, a project could move forward, so long as higher quality wetlands would be created and no significant harm would come to the environment.
Under the law, the DNR must submit reports to the Legislature every two years on the performance of wetland permitting and mitigation. In 2007, the Legislative Audit Bureau performed an audit, analyzing the mitigation program and permitting process for activities occurring near wetlands. The audit made a number of valuable recommendations for the Legislature to consider, which I believe should be advanced.
This session, I introduced Senate Bill 368. I worked closely with the DNR to craft this legislation to update the wetland regulation and mitigation program, making it more viable and effective. Important to note, we remained true to the initial goal of the program for a net gain of higher quality wetlands.
SB 368 strikes a balance between economic and environmental benefits by providing more flexibility for economic development projects, while also fostering opportunities for restoring wetlands. The bill upholds the original legislative intent by allowing for greater consideration of wetland mitigation projects to offset wetland impacts, while maintaining net gains for wetland enhancements.
The standard that any potential wetland impact be first avoided, then minimized, and then mitigated remains intact, and mitigation is required for larger projects involving more sensitive areas, rather than voluntary. The DNR may issue more generalized permits for minor projects, similar to permits issued by the federal government. Issuing general permits rather than customized permits for smaller projects helps expedite the process and allows the DNR to focus its time on truly important and larger wetland projects.
While the bill allows for greater consideration of mitigation or projects that may boost the economy, the DNR retains its authority to deny any permit if it believes an adverse environmental impact to wetlands or water quality will occur. Further, nothing guarantees a permit will be granted because an economic benefit or mitigation is offered. The DNR remains the final decision-maker in this process and the steward of Wisconsin’s wetlands.
SB 368 was approved by the Legislature and signed into law as 2011 Wisconsin Act 118. I was proud of the work done on this bill, as well as other wetlands protections measures I have supported through the years. I believe the new wetlands regulation law maintains the high standards set for wetlands protection in Wisconsin, while simultaneously creating a more effective program supporting economic development and job creation where appropriate, and needed most.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, can be reached in Madison at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or by calling toll-free 1-800-578-1457. He may be reached in the district at (262) 742-2025 or online at senatorkedzie.com.