As a controversial bill seeking to remove state protection from Indiana’s wetlands passed the Senate this week, Gov. Eric Holcomb voiced his concerns regarding the impact of the bill, which is opposed by the two agencies charged primarily with caring for the state’s environmental health. 

Senate Bill 389 passed the Senate by a vote of 29 to 19. The bill would repeal all state protections for Indiana’s diminished wetlands, despite bipartisan opposition in the Senate and from the state departments of natural resources and environmental management. The bill now goes to the Indiana House of Representatives for consideration.

final vote

Senate Bill 389 passed the Senate by a vote of 29 to 19.

Although one of the bill’s main authors, Sen. Chris Garten, said it would have “zero impact” on the state’s water quality, Holcomb told the Indiana Environmental Reporter that he has some reservations about the bill in its current form. 

“Despite the struggles of the pandemic, Indiana’s economy is showing signs of progress, including strong growth in single-family home builds,” said Holcomb. “We want to build on that momentum, not slow it down by turning the process over to a slow-moving federal program. I share the concerns of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana Department of Environmental Management. 

“We need to be confident that any changes in the law avoid harming drinking water quality, increasing the potential for flooding, or hurting the wildlife habitats used by our anglers and hunters. This administration will continue to work with lawmakers to address these concerns throughout the rest of this legislative session.”

Wetlands trap and slowly release water, filtering it through sediment and vegetation before it reaches surface and groundwater systems. They can reduce or prevent flooding and are home to many species of wildlife.

The state has lost 4.7 million acres of wetlands to development since 1780. Only 15% of the state’s wetlands remain.

garten

Sen. Chris Garten, one of the main authors of the bill, speaking about SB 389 before the Senate vote.

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule of April 2020 narrowed the definition of waterways that fall under federal protection. Certain wetlands with only temporary connection to perennial bodies of water, known as isolated wetlands, now fall under state jurisdictions.

“It does not in any way impact the federal regulations of wetlands in Indiana,” said Sen. Chris Garten, one of the main authors of the bill. “Simply put, any action that would have any impact on water quality in Indiana is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. This bill has zero gauge and zero effect on drinking water or water quality.”

SB 389 would repeal all state protections to state wetlands put in place by Republicans in 2003. 

The bill’s supporters said SB 389 would remove burdensome regulations targeting farmers and land developers.

“Hoosier farmers, our manufacturers, our building and development community and even our local municipalities know all too well the negative effects these over-regulatory burdens have,” Garten told the Senate before the vote on the bill. “My hope is that Senate Bill 389 forces all of us to address the question of why we want to be more regulatory than 42 other states.”

The bill’s main authors all have ties to the land development and housing industry. Garten is owner of Signature Countertops Inc. in Jeffersonville; Sen. Mark Messmer is co-owner of Messmer Mechanical Inc., a plumbing, heating and cooling company; and Sen. Linda Rogers is owner of Nugent Builders in Granger.

Garten said he and the bill’s authors had not consulted with Gov. Eric Holcomb about the far-reaching legislation, despite the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Department of Natural Resources coming out against the bill.

IDEM and DNR testified against the bill when it was introduced to the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee, saying it would take away the state’s ability to protect Indiana wetlands and undermine years of work in flood prevention and water quality efforts.

Glick

Sen. Susan Glick, a Republican, opposed the bill, saying the bill would destroy protections that help Hoosiers.

Sen. Susan Glick, chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said she opposed the bill because it destroyed what Hoosiers had accomplished in the past and removed rights and privileges because some people did not approve of how regulations were imposed.

“Yes, these are small areas. Some of them are just wet spots in the field, and I agree, Sen. Garten, these are a problem. But they’re not a problem that we solve by dissolving wetlands and allowing them to be destroyed,” Glick said during discussion of the bill. “We don’t destroy the method by which we protect the people of this state. That’s our responsibility.”

SB 389 will now head to the Indiana House of Representatives for consideration.