The Environment Report
8:30 am
Tue December 10, 2013

Big changes are coming to wetland regulations in Michigan

Listen to the broadcast version of this story.

Michigan has lost millions of acres of wetlands over the last century. But the state’s still got roughly five million acres left. 

“Wetlands are really, really important to clean water. They’ve been called nature’s nurseries and nature’s kidneys,” said Grenetta Thomassey, who heads Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey.

Wetlands are home to all kinds of baby fish, birds, and insects. They help filter water and can protect against flooding.

Wetland loss (red) by region since Pre-European settlement. Green areas are existing wetlands.
Credit Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

How to make use of a wetland

If you want to use a wetland in most anywhere in the United States, to build a driveway to your lakefront home or to fill it in to farm on it for example, you’ve got to get a permit through the Environmental Protection Agency or the Army Corp of Engineers.

But Michigan is weird. It’s one of only two states that is allowed to administer its own permits. It can only do that on the condition that the state permits are at least as strict as the federal permit program.

Michigan’s program fails to meet federal laws

In 2008, the EPA did an audit of the state program. It found Michigan was not in compliance with the Clean Water Act. It needed to get there to keep the program.

In 2009, former Governor Jennifer Granholm suggested the state should just give the responsibility back to the feds and save the state a couple million dollars.

When Governor Rick Snyder took office his administration decided it was worth the price to keep the wetland permitting program under state control.

“I like to come back and ask a fundamental question usually with our citizens, ‘if you had a choice, would you rather work with the state of Michigan or the federal government?’ And I think there’s usually a bias to say I’d rather work with the state,” Snyder said at a recent meeting of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Michigan’s program serves as a sort of one-stop-shop for those who want to work in wetlands. Plus the state has deadlines to respond to permit applications, where the federal program generally does not.

So to keep Michigan’s program, the state had to bring it into compliance with federal law. A new wetlands bill was drafted.

The new law creates a simpler permit for blueberry farmers. Michigan produces more blueberries than any other state in the country, so there's a big interest from those farmers. The law exempts utility line installations, agricultural drain maintenance and livestock grazing. It changes how and when regulators could force permit applicants to mitigate the wetlands they want to use. And it changes how regulators tell if a certain wetland is regulated or not.

Greneta Thomassey from Tip of Mitt Watershed Council says the intent was good but then lobbyists got ahold of it.

“What came out of it was this horrible hybrid of some tiny little corrections being made from the EPA audit and a whole bunch of new things being added in that took the program out of compliance further,” Thomassey said.

She points to three pages of comments the EPA provided the state legislature on a draft version of the bill. It was signed into law without resolving all of EPA’s concerns.

EPA on Michigan’s new wetland laws: follow at your own risk

An EPA official said parts of the new law are not compliant with the Clean Water Act either.

The agency would not provide someone for an interview for this story.

But the official said getting a permit through the new state law could put a farmer or business owner at risk of breaking federal laws. It’s sort of like how medical marijuana is legal in Michigan but that doesn’t make it legal at the federal level. The official said those who participate in the new permit program are taking a risk the feds could catch up to them.

Michigan officials “confident” EPA will sign off on the changes

“Bottomline is we’re better off today with that at than where we were,” said Michigan Department of Environmental Quality director Dan Wyant.

Wyant says the new law clarifies definitions and streamlines the process.

Wyant believes the differences between the new state law and the Clean Water Act aren’t big enough to really impact wetlands.

“Where you have perceived differences, most are so small that I don’t call them functionally problematic to our program,” Wyant said.

Wyant says they’ll make the case that those differences fit Michigan’s needs better.

Wyant says he’s confident the EPA will approve the changes. He and other state officials will make their case during a public hearing in Lansing tomorrow. Thomassey and other environmentalists are expected to testify too.

If they don’t approve the new law, EPA officials say they will work with the state to correct any issues. They say stopping Michigan from administering its own wetland program would be a last resort.

If you can’t make the hearing you can still have your say. The EPA will take written comments here through December 18th.

They’ll use those comments to inform their final decision. But it’s not clear how long that’ll take.

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