Granholm’s wetlands proposal doesn’t hold water
|By Dave Dempsey|
The spirit is willing, but the wetland protection is weak.
Michigan’s 30-year-old wetland protection law has always been stronger in its intent than in effect. Punctured from the start by exceptions and chronically under-funded, it has still managed to staunch the century-old bleeding of the state’s valuable marshes, swamps and fens.
But the state wetland protection effort is facing a formidable threat yet — a triple-barreled blast from Guest Column shriveling state tax revenues, always hostile legislators and property rights advocates, and a Granholm administration that has grown tired of defending it.
In her 2009 State of the State message, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed turning over the state wetland program to the federal government, which would require repealing the 1979 Wetland Protection Act. Why would she propose something that her anti-environment predecessor, John Engler, never dared?
The proposal resulted from “Michigan’s severe economic challenges limiting funds for needed government services and the program’s structural funding shortfall,” said Frank Ruswick, the Department of Environmental Quality’s senior policy adviser.
It’s never been easy to protect wetlands here or anywhere else in America. Despised as wastelands from which pestilence emerged, wetlands were the target of official government drainage policy until the middle part of the 20th century. Michigan’s wetland acreage has diminished since European settlement from 11 million to 5.5 million acres.
An early local example of the phenomenon was Chandler Farm, 12 miles northeast of Lansing. When Michigan became a state, marsh grass populated what was originally a 5,000-acre lake, but under the ownership of Zachariah Chandler, who represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate after the Civil War, some 2,000 acres were drained by the digging of a ditch. As one environmental historian put it, “Legislators regarded swamps as afflicted and agriculturally barren lands in urgent need of human ingenuity.”
But Granholm’s idea has backing, and not from her usual allies. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, hailed the proposal and introduced a bill to make it happen. Kahn cited grievances against the DEQ, which he said “has been overly punitive to property owners, often times delaying permits or eliminating whole sections of private properties to development by not granting permits.” (State figures show over 80 percent of wetland permits applied for are granted.)
What’s going on from the perspective of the wetlands program staff? One DEQ employee wanting to remain anonymous put it this way: “Our division management, and [DEQ Director Steve Chester] really, have not turned around the 12 years of Engler/Harding mentality. [Russell Harding was Gov. Engler’s DEQ director.] “No positive changes have been put forward by management, no strong leaders with a natural resource ethic have been promoted in (the Land and Water Management Division), none of the supervisors who are inept or worse were removed, staff morale is terrible… . It’s a miracle that for the most part, we are still in pretty good shape at a staff level and good work is still being done.”
It appears now the wetland program may win a one-year reprieve. The DEQ’s Ruswick says there’s “much interest in finding a way to maintain the program in the near term to allow collaborative consideration of the nature and funding of the program in the long term.”
Whatever the future of wetland protection in Michigan, Granholm has left her signature of confusion and indecision on yet another area of Michigan government — offering up a proposal appalling her strongest backers, letting it dangle in the Legislature, and ultimately, perhaps, leaving it to her successor to sort out.
(Dave Dempsey is a former City Pulse columnist who advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to1989. He is author of a book on Michigans conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)
Once condemned as breeding grounds of evil and disease, wetlands have won a more favorable reputation as science advances.
• Flood and storm control: through the absorption and storage capacity of wetlands.
• Protection of subsurface water resources and provision of valuable watersheds and recharging ground water supplies.
• Pollution treatment: serving as a biological and chemical oxidation basin.
• Erosion control: serving as a sedimentation area and filtering basin, absorbing silt and organic matter.
• Sources of nutrients in water food cycles and nursery grounds and sanctuaries for fish.