Michigan’s Wetlands and the Environmental Protection Agency

Rogue River Watershed Council

cannonwetlandsOne of Michigan’s greatest resources is its abundance and high quality of water. Wetlands play a key role in this vital natural resource. Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs. Wetlands control flooding by absorbing rain and snow melt, (thus they have earned the nickname “nature’s kidneys”), they filter and control fluctuating levels of ground water, they filter sediment and pollution from stormwater run off and they provide recreational opportunities for fishing and hunting. Wetlands are also key habitat to fish, insects, amphibians and birds, like the bald eagle and American bittern. Many animals like the gray wolf, white tailed deer and otters rely on wetlands for food and a place to rest. Many plants that are unique to wetlands are essential for habitat survival.

Governor Granholm has urged the State legislature to hand over regulation of Michigan’s wetlands to the EPA in order to cut spending on what she terms as “duplication of services.” Others want to do away with Michigan’s wetlands permitting process in order to remove roadblocks for business expansion.

On the surface this seems like a good idea. Why have a state program in place that does exactly what the EPA already does? On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the EPA wetlands regulations are not the same as Michigan’s. Here’s why:

Currently, Michigan law regulates the permitting of wetlands that are five acres or more and/or are contiguous to a body of water. That body of water could be a lake, a stream or a seasonal stream. The EPA, however, only permits wetlands that are adjacent to navigable waters. That leaves thousands of acres of “stand alone” wetlands, those that are not adjacent to navigable water, unprotected. Anyone could fill in and dig up wetlands without a permit. So, what’s the big deal? It’s their property so who cares? Well, the big deal is that by filling in a wetland, we are shutting down a crucial part of nature’s function. When we fill wetlands, we jeopardize our health and economic well being. Loss of wetlands means poor water quality, flooding and the property damage that goes along with it. Loss of wetlands means losing our recreational opportunities and encroaching on the habitat of fish, birds and wildlife. Once a wetland is lost, it’s lost. Restoration, if possible, can cost thousands, if not millions of dollars.

Other states who must rely on the EPA to permit wetlands complain of months and years of waiting before a permit is processed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), who permits current Michigan wetland regulations, has a permit process of 90 days with the average permit process taking 60 days. The MDEQ has staff throughout the state who have established relationships with private property owners and local business and knows the local ecosystems. The MDEQ offers educational outreach to help landowners identify and assess wetlands. The EPA does not have this type of staff or capability.

We all want business to thrive in Michigan. We all want to cut wasteful government spending. But by abandoning our protection of wetlands, we set ourselves up for future problems that will cost us, and our children, heaps of money down the road in the way of water filtration systems, flood damage and loss of recreation revenue. These problems will unlikely attract new business and will only burden taxpayers with costly fixes.

To learn more about how wetlands function and their benefits, visit the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality at www.michigan.gov/deq then click on Water, then click on Wetlands Protection. Or go to www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/vital/nature.html.

The Rogue River Watershed Council is dedicated to long-term protection and restoration of the Rogue River and its tributaries through community stewardship, education and watershed-based land-use planning. For more information, contact Andy Bowman at 776-7611.

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