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Wetlands That Mitigate Flooding in Northern Wisconsin at Risk Under Rule Change

Ben Meyer/WXPR

From fish and wildlife habitat to natural water purifiers, wetlands play a crucial role in human and environmental health.

Last year, the Clean Water Rule was replaced by the Navigable Waters Protection Rule which modified the Waters of the Unites States definition in the Clean Waters Act.

The rule change means that lakes, streams, some tributaries, and wetlands adjacent to those remain protected, but excludes other streams and isolated wetlands.

It’s a change the Wisconsin Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science and Strategy Nick Miller says was not based on science.

“When the Navigable Waters Protection Rule was first proposed and throughout its development it was made clear by the administration that it was not based on science. It was intentionally not based on science,” said Miller.

Credit Wisconsin's Green Fire & the Nature Conservancy
Percent of wetland area important for flood abatement in Wisconsin unprotected by the 2020 NWPR. Darker colors correspond to watersheds with a higher proportion of federally unprotected wetlands important for flood abatement.

The Nature Conservancy and Wisconsin’s Green Fire worked together to assess which wetlands in Wisconsin would no longer qualify for federal protection under the rule change using the Wetlands by Design tool.

The changes mean just over half of Wisconsin’s Wetlands lose federal protection, most of which are in northern Wisconsin and most of which play akey role in mitigating flooding.

“As we see more storms, more intense storms, more frequent storms, wetlands are playing a crucial role in helping to make sure that those floods don’t overwhelm where we live, where we work, where we practice agriculture, etc,” said Miller.

While more than 3.5 million acres of wetlands lose federal protection under the rule change, it doesn’t mean they have no protections.

Tom Bernthal is a retired DNR Wetlands expert and one of the authors on the Wisconsin’s Green Fire wetland report.

He says this isn’t first time wetlands protections have been rollbacked.

When a 2001 Supreme Court order threatened isolated wetlands, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acted to protect them.

Act 6 was passed unanimously.

“Everybody supported it, republicans and democrats. It was truly bipartisan,” said Bernthal.

Even with the state protections, Bernthal says when one loosens it throws doubt onto the other.

“Which caused a lot of confusion and time delays for people who are trying to get business done who need to get a wetland permit,” said Bernthal.

Both Bernthal and Miller would like to see the federal protections restored and make sure Wisconsin stays committed to protecting wetlands.

“This is really a clarion call to make sure that Wisconsin maintains adequate state-level protections for wetlands. We cannot rely on federal level protections to always be there because there’s been a lot of ping-ponging, a lot of back and forth with federal level protections. Meanwhile, we have a had 100% bi-partisan support for wetland protections in our state. We see that as being desirable goal running into the future,” said Miller.

A step beyond that, to end the back and forth, Bernthal wants the conversations around wetlands to change.  

“I’d like to suggest we spend less time arguing about what a wetland is. We know what wetlands are. And more time talking about what kind of activities will be allowed and how they will be carried out.”

Miller said the laws come down to a matter of finding balance between protecting wetlands and making room for development.

“Wetlands are natural infrastructure and then we also have built infrastructure. A smart planner would figure out how to make all of those pieces fit together, the natural and the built infrastructure. What you’re see here is disagreement in these policies over the appropriate balance,” said Miller.

You can read Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s assessment of the potential impact of the rule change here.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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