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Governor Signs Controversial Wetlands Bill Into Law

An Indiana Department of Environmental Management employee inspects an area in Hamilton County where an agricultural tile has been damaged, causing what they call an isolated wetland to form over time, 2017.

An Indiana Department of Environmental Management employee inspects an area in Hamilton County where an agricultural tile has been damaged, causing what they call an isolated wetland to form over time. (Courtesy of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management)

Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed a controversial bill into law that takes away state protections for many of Indiana’s wetlands.

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.”

Senate Enrolled Act 389 now removes protections for a whole class of smaller wetlands and nixes some for another class of wetlands that the state considers somewhat “rare or ecologically important.” The Indiana Department of Environmental Management estimates more than 80 percent of the state’s wetlands fall into these two categories.

Supporters of the new law said Indiana’s wetland protections were too strict — causing home prices to go up and creating conflicts between farmers and state environmental regulators.

More than a hundred different groups sent a letter to Holcomb this week asking him to veto the bill — including The Nature Conservancy. 

READ MORE: More Than 100 Groups Ask Holcomb To Veto Wetlands Bill

"These wetlands are important, and without these regulations, even more will be destroyed. Their role in retaining water — especially during floods — and recharging our water we depend on is critical to ensuring Indiana’s most precious natural resource is available to us today and future generations of Hoosiers tomorrow," said Larry Clemens, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Indiana in an email statement.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce also reacted to the signing. It said Holcomb's decision was “surprising and disappointing." The law also creates a task force to study some of the issues behind the bill. 

“It’s unfortunate that legislators chose to rush to action on this matter and not take the proper time to study something that will have such signification ramifications for citizens and businesses, with more than half of the state’s 800,000 acres of wetlands now being eliminated from protection," said Kevin Brinegar, Chamber president and CEO, in a statement.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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