(TNS) - As Wisconsin becomes a wetter place, lawmakers are pushing ahead with controversial rules to weaken protections of wetlands.
These ecologically important landscapes are currently protected by state and federal laws for a variety of reasons, including their ability to hold storm water and protect against flooding.
The Republican-sponsored legislation — which comes before the Assembly on Thursday — has sparked sharp divisions between business groups and environmental and conservation organizations.
The rollbacks have the support of developers, the real estate industry and farm groups who said the legislation will help move marketable land into development. The changes would give property owners greater flexibility, especially in broadly defined urban areas, to build on wetlands not connected to a navigable body of water.
This type of wetland is known as an isolated wetland and can be found as depressions, shallow marshes and meadows. Isolated wetlands are regulated by the state.
Wisconsin has an estimated 1 million acres of isolated wetlands, and more than 4 million acres of wetlands that are connected to waterways. The latter wetlands fall under the regulation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Lawmakers have recently narrowed the scope of the bill — prompting a key conservation group, Ducks Unlimited, to drop its formal opposition.
But other environmental groups and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, comprised of more than 200 conservation organizations, are still against the bill. They argue that as more development occurs — with more streets, roofs and parking lots — wetlands give storm water a chance to soak in, preventing flooding.
Kenneth W. Potter, a storm water expert and professor emeritus of environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that the rollback comes as the Upper Midwest is experiencing more precipitation.
Potter said existing storm water regulations — rules to keep water from rushing down storm sewers and filling creeks and lakes with polluted runoff — aren’t stiff enough.
“So facilitating the destruction of wetlands will in many instances increase future flood risk,” Potter said.
He said flood risks should be evaluated first before a developer is allowed to fill in an isolated wetland.
The wetlands debate has centered on claims and counter claims of economic benefit and environmental peril.
What is not disputed is the water-capturing abilities of wetlands, sometimes described as “nature’s sponges.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wetlands along the Mississippi River once had the ability to hold 60 days of floods. Today, that storage capacity has fallen to about 12 days, due to wetlands being filled or drained off, the agency says.
Another fact: Wisconsin’s climate is changing, including a trend toward more precipitation in the form of rain, snow, sleet or hail.
Dating back to 1895, 11 of the 20 years with the most precipitation have occurred since 1970, according to the Wisconsin State Climatology Office
Last year, Wisconsin had 37.54 inches of precipitation, ranking 8th highest in 122 years. In 2016, the previous year, 39.38 inches fell on the state — 2nd highest.
In Milwaukee, since 1872, six of the 10 wettest days have occurred since 1986, figures from the Center for Climatic Research at the UW-Madison show. The most recent was 5.61 inches on a single day in July 2010.
In 2011, in the state’s most comprehensive look at climate change and its impacts, scientists reported Wisconsin had become warmer and wetter over the past 60 years — a trend scientists said they expect to continue.
Statewide, the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts found that average annual precipitation increased about 15% from 1950 through 2006.
(The report was coordinated by UW-Madison and the state Department of Natural Resources, but included dozens of collaborators from universities, the private sector, tribes and others.)
Rain and snow do not fall evenly across the state. Scientists found annual precipitation increases of as much as 7 inches a year in parts of the west and south central part of the state and declines of up to 4 inches in areas of the north.
The conclusions predicted more precipitation in the years ahead — including more large storm events.
One such example, is last summer’s heavy rains and flooding in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.
Up to 8 inches of rain fell across parts of the three counties in July, causing sanitary sewer overflows in 15 communities, damaged homes, flooded basements and millions of dollars in damage.
David L. Maack, coordinator of the Racine County Office of Emergency Management for 28 years, visited hundreds of sites during the flood and in its aftermath.
“This was the worse I have ever been involved in,” Maack said.
In Burlington, in Racine County, the Fox River climbed some 5 feet above flood stage on July 13. In all, about 675 homes sustained significant damage in the three counties and losses to public facilities totaled $4.4 million, according to a report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Gov. Scott Walker issued three states of emergencies for the flooding and called out the National Guard.
Since 2012, Walker has issued a total of 14 emergency declarations because of storms and flooding, figures from his office show.
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