A bill being considered by the Indiana Senate seeks to establish a task force to examine the regulatory impediments faced by farmers dealing with drainage issues on their land, but conservation and environmental groups said they are concerned the task force could ultimately lead to negative impacts on the state’s wetlands.

Senate Bill 85, introduced by Sen. Jean Leising, seeks to establish an 18-member task force to review the responsibilities of landowners and state and local authorities under state drainage, wetland and flood control laws. 

The task force would determine whether authority over drainage matters is shifting to the state level, whether drainage laws “yield to conservation and pollution control objectives,” whether regulatory requirements are “too great” for farmers and how the balance between state and local authority over drainage issues compares to that in neighboring states.

Leising, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said she introduced the bill after getting communications from constituents saying they did not have as much control over natural resource issues as they had in the past.

“This summer, there were a lot of really, really hard rains in my area, where there was substantial flooding by creeks. So, I was getting calls from people saying, ‘Hey, we don't know if we have to get a permit to deal with the damage that that has been done to our property. We understand it's a very difficult process to get a permit, then it may take at least three months, maybe as long as four months,’” Leising said when introducing the bill. “I didn't know how to fix this, so I said, ‘Maybe this is an issue that does need to be discussed at length.’ And in order to do that, I said, ‘Let's try to do a drainage task force.’”

The task force would comprised six members appointed by the Indiana Senate and six members appointed by the Indiana House of Representatives. The governor would appoint task force members from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and representatives from a soil and water conservation district, a county drainage board, the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and a statewide farm organization.

The bill is supported by the Indiana Farm Bureau, the Indiana Corn Growers Association, the Indiana Soy Bean Alliance and the Agribusiness Council of Indiana. 

“As I'm out and around visiting with my members at board meetings and other events, I hear as much about concerns over regulatory overreach from DNR as I do wind, solar and broadband,” testified Jeff Cummins, Indiana Farm Bureau associate director of policy engagement. “And so what I really want to do is support this bill for the same objective, because what we'd like to do is kick over rocks and see what are what are exactly the metes and bounds of that authority.”

If the bill passes, the task force would issue a report on its recommendations by Dec. 1, 2023.

Conservation and environmental groups testified they were concerned that the agriculturally centered task force would look for solutions for farmers at the expense of important regulations that protect the hydrologic functions of wetlands that, once lost, will cost millions of taxpayer dollars to replicate.

Indra Frank, the director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council, testified that wetlands and meandering streams hold at least a million gallons of water per acre, recharging aquifers and reducing flooding by slowing down the rate at which the water enters waterways.

“The realization that wetlands play a central role in the hydrology system led to laws passed both at the state and the federal levels. And those laws, while imperfect, are trying to strike that balance. If we go too far in one direction, we don't have adequate farmland. If we go too far in the other direction and drain too much, or too rapidly, we can increase the risk of flooding downstream from where we're doing the drainage,” Frank said. 

Last year, lawmakers passed Senate Enrolled Act 389, which fully repealed protections for more than half of the state’s remaining wetlands and weakened protections for 250,000 acres of vaguely-defined Class II wetlands.

Water management agencies, like the St. Joseph River Basin Commission, testified that wetland loss was connected to flooding issues and a rise in the cost of water management for local governments.

The law passed with the support of lobbyists like the Indiana Homebuilders Association and the Indiana Farm Bureau.

Besides the rollback of most state protections for wetlands, SEA 389 also created a 14-member wetlands task force that would research and develop strategies to mitigate the costs incurred by builders to comply with state wetland regulations, the flood reduction benefits of wetlands, strategies to incentivize the preservation of existing wetlands and other wetland issues. 

Frank asked the committee to consider delaying the establishment of the drainage task force until after the wetlands task force releases its own report on its findings Nov. 1. 

The bill passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee and now heads to the full senate for consideration.

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