Sierra Club Opposes Wetlands Changes at Legislature: Bill Puts Future of Minnesota Wetlands, Clean Water and Habitat at Risk

wetlands - photo credit: Ivy Vaino

photo credit: Ivy Vaino

A bill being considered at the legislature, SF 1515, fails to improve protections for wetlands and risks large scale destruction of wetlands in the Lake Superior Watershed and the rest of Northeastern Minnesota. On March 10, North Star Chapter legislative advocate John Hottinger testified against the bill. Read his testimony below, and call your legislators and ask them to oppose SF 1515.

I am John Hottinger representing the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.  The Sierra Club North Star Chapter is the leading grassroots voice to preserve and protect Minnesota’s environment with over 14,000 members.    

The Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA) of 1991 has four goals:

1.      No net loss in the quality and quantity of wetlands,

2.      Increasing the quality, quantity and biological diversity of Minnesota’s wetlands,

3.      Avoid activities that harm wetlands, and

4.      Replace wetlands when damage is unavoidable.

The North Star Chapter has given continuous scrutiny to these goals to make sure they are honored.  As a result the North Star Chapter opposes HF 1489/SF 1515 because it does not adequately protect those goals. 

Wetlands are a very important part of the clean water system. They filter pollution and purify our water, store floodwater and replenish groundwater. Maintaining healthy wetlands in watersheds helps prevent rivers and lakes from becoming polluted. Wetlands provide habitat for a wealth of wildlife: ducks, dragonflies, frogs, birds, fish and an amazing diversity of plants.

With early melting, small wetlands become rich in invertebrates, providing necessary, life-giving food for reproducing waterfowl and their hatchlings.  With increased climate disruption resulting in more extreme weather events, wetlands help absorb extreme floods, augmenting water flow during droughts and continuing to provide the filtering to protect and enhance water quality.  They are more valuable now than ever before.

But wetlands do suffer from their own increasing disruption:  pollution, urban development, industrial and mining encroachment and highway and farm runoff, harming their ability to provide their functions.

We applaud Governor Dayton’s stated desire to “assess potential changes to current policies that will improve wetland conservation in Minnesota in a manner that maintains and restores the integrity of Minnesota’s wetlands.”   The Sierra Club’s volunteer members with expertise spent literally hundreds of hours studying wetlands proposals and participating vigorously in the stakeholder process.  We identified area of concern during that process.  However, we were not invited to be part of the small group which reached their consensus on this bill, and do not join that consensus.  We have a number of disagreements with the bill, but let me highlight five of them:

1.      That avoidance of wetland losses (as required in current state and federal laws) should be a top priority and strongly enforced before compensatory mitigation is allowed. Skipping this key step should not be easy. Government officials should press hard for avoidance, even if there is additional cost to mining companies. Actions taken to “avoid” should be documented and made public.

2.      In accordance with a proposal which has been under discussion for a number of years, we believe that merged Bank Service Areas 1 and 2 should be separated in the process for identifying mitigation sites.  Combining the Rainy River and Lake Superior watersheds makes the area too broad for mitigation given the priority under laws to seek mitigation nearest to the point of wetland disruption. 

Mitigations for mines in St. Louis County’s Lake Superior watershed must take place in the Lake Superior watershed (not Rainy River, an entirely different watershed).  Wetland destruction from mines north of the divide (Rainy River watershed) must be mitigated in that watershed. We oppose allowing different kinds of mitigation and compensation for the Lake Superior watershed because this will facilitate large-scale destruction of wetlands from future mining activities that will concentrate there. Doing this is contrary to the purpose and goals of WCA. It can be easy and cheap to find mitigation in a different watershed, but it needs to be in the impaired watershed even if it is more difficult and expensive. 

3.      Do not allow mitigation credits for “alternative mitigation strategies,” or so-called “alternative options” instead of restorations of wetlands in the watershed where the impact takes place. Such activities should be undertaken anyway, but not as a source for credits to destroy wetlands.

4.      The Mining and Minerals Division of the DNR needs to be considered a local government unit (LGU) for purposes of the Act in order to recognize its role as an advocate for mining which is contradictory to other responsibilities of the DNR.

5.      Do not allow an “in lieu” fee payment program. An in-lieu fee program allows large-scale destruction of wetlands ahead of mitigation, allows destruction of wetlands for a fee, and ignores individual responsibility for large-scale impacts to the environment. In lieu fee programs do not provide a guarantee that wetland mitigation projects will achieve success for the sum that permittees have paid, and yet permittees are released from liability. If a mitigation project proves more expensive than anticipated, the public or a third party is on the hook for the difference. As a result, in lieu fee projects cannot be expected to result in successful mitigation. Instead, look at funding these efforts up front, consistent with Rep. Simonsen’s House bill.

We appreciate the attention of this committee and hope that during the next ten weeks we can reach a true consensus that will improve the protection and enhancement of Minnesota’s wetlands, consistent with the goals of the original legislation and the increased value of those public assets in a changing world.

We need your help to amplify the voice of the Sierra Club to your elected leaders, and oppose SF 1515! To get involved or for more information, contact Bill Barton or Lori Andresen.

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