Few isolated wetlands are likely located in Rock County, but county officials are worried a bill awaiting Gov. Scott Walker’s signature could have negative effects on water quality and flooding potential statewide, including Rock County.
The bill would exempt isolated and artificial wetlands from certain Department of Natural Resources permitting requirements. Easing regulations could open wetlands up for development.
Isolated wetlands are those not connected to navigable waterways and are currently regulated by the state. Non-isolated wetlands are federally regulated under the Clean Water Act, said Colin Byrnes, director of the Rock County Planning and Development Agency.
The Assembly passed the Republican-backed bill Feb. 15 by a 58-39 vote, with four Republicans voting against it. The Senate approved the bill five days later on a party-line vote.
While the bill is meant to spark economic activity, Byrnes said talented developers should be able to build around wetlands on site.
“The bill’s authors believe these regulations are a hindrance (to development). We find any developer worth their salt can do the work and design around it,” he said. “One would ask what’s the point of creating these artificial wetlands when you could’ve just left the ones that are on site alone and worked around them?”
Byrnes referred to creating new wetlands because the bill requires developers to mitigate some of the wetland acreage they fill.
But it isn’t an acre-for-acre exchange. In rural areas, development affecting more than 1.5 acres of wetlands would only require mitigation for the portion exceeding 1.5 acres. The same idea applies in urban areas but changes the portion size to 10,000 square feet per parcel.
That gives developers a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for certain projects, Byrnes said.
Even without the net acreage loss, mitigation is undesirable because the characteristics of new wetlands are different than the ones they replace, said Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association.
“There’s certainly a functional loss because many of these wetlands, we don’t know how to replace yet,” he said. “They’ve been formed and evolved over thousands and thousands of years. You can’t dig a hole and re-create that stuff.”
The association estimates there are 1 million acres of isolated wetlands in the state. There are roughly 4 million acres of non-isolated wetlands, Hames said.
Those estimates are based on soil types and aerial photos that indicate where wetlands are likely to occur. But the distinction between an isolated wetland and a non-isolated one must be made with an in-person assessment, Hames said.
DNR wetlands maps do not distinguish between the two kinds, either.
A Wisconsin Wetlands Association map displaying approximate locations of isolated wetlands shows few in Rock County. The heaviest concentrations are in northern Wisconsin and in suburban areas outside Milwaukee.
Hames said this area could still experience negative effects.
“In Rock County itself, if filling more isolated wetlands and exacerbating flooding conditions, that can be a problem,” he said. “Two, if there’s folks up Rock River developing areas and removing wetlands, that will ultimately flush down and cause more flooding in Rock County. Things that happen miles and miles away could have implications downstream.”
Though isolated wetlands are less common, they still improve water quality by trapping sediments and chemical runoff before either reach sources of drinking water, Hames said.
Isolated wetlands are also breeding grounds for ducks and other wildlife, he said.
Six sportsmen’s organizations issued a joint statement last fall opposing the bill, saying it would be “extremely damaging” to hunting and fishing in the state.
Byrnes said he “stands by” the Wisconsin Wetlands Association’s position and is concerned how this legislation could affect state waters in the future.
“It’s difficult not to buy into their line of thinking,” he said. “You can sit there and say every square foot of wetlands you destroy, there goes the sponge. Where’s that water going to go? Over land, headed to the hydrologic system, headed for the Rock River.”