INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A bill removing some protections from Indiana’s already diminished wetlands was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb Thursday despite widespread criticism that it could damage waterways, wildlife and vegetation.
The wetlands measure passed out of the Legislature April 14 and has sparked bipartisan opposition within the Republican-dominated Legislature. Retroactive as of Jan. 1, it eliminates a 2003 law that requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to issue permits for construction and development in state-regulated wetlands and end enforcement proceedings against landowners accused of violating current law.
Holcomb’s signature followed his own reservations earlier in the Legislative session, when he said that the wetlands repeal was a cause for “concern." He further allowed staff at the natural resources and environmental management departments to oppose the bill in hearings in January, where state regulatory officials argued that the wetlands must be protected because they purify water, provide habitat for wildlife and reduce flood risks.
Months-long pushback against the bill prompted lawmakers to scale back the intended repeal earlier this month, reducing wetland permitting regulations for croplands and temporary streams, rather than for all wetlands.
Holcomb said he "appreciated" those changes to the bill and cited the continued protections as “critical” to his decision to sign the bill Thursday.
“Even still, I felt compelled to carefully and deliberately weigh the bill’s intent to protect property rights against its new limitations on land protections,” Holcomb said in a statement Thursday. “Under this new regulatory scheme, I believe Hoosier farmers and landowners will continue to be careful stewards of the land.”
All Democratic members of the General Assembly, as well as a member of the Senate Republican Caucus, urged the Republican governor to veto the bill last week, citing “long term consequences” and a need for “more in-depth study than what was accomplished in limited committee times during a legislative session in a pandemic.”
In a separate letter delivered to Holcomb's office Monday, more than 100 organizations called on the governor to veto the bill they claimed will “cost the state dearly,” when accounting for increased flooding and erosion expenses, loss of groundwater recharge, fewer tourism opportunities and loss of diverse wildlife "that makes Indiana special."
“This bill opens the door to irrevocable impacts on our rich natural history and puts the wellbeing of millions of Hoosiers at risk, now and well into the future,” the letter said. “Indiana needs a thorough, inclusive, and deliberative approach to changing the law on such a vital natural resource.”
Republican bill author Sen. Chris Garten and other sponsors argued throughout the Legislative session that vague language in the current state law, over-enforcement by state regulators and high mitigation fees that drive up housing costs prompted the drafting. They contend removal of state protections would help developers and grow the housing market.
The proposal comes as President Joe Biden’s administration reviews the previous administration’s rules such as the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which narrowed the definition of waterways that fall under federal protection.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.