Anderson: It's time to protect the wetlands

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2012 - 7:35 AM

Minnesotans need to start demanding "no net loss" of wetlands or those areas will be gone in two generations.

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Seminary Fen in Chanhassen

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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While many Minnesotans on Wednesday worried where they might buy Powerball tickets, the wheels of government turned ever so slowly in a non-descript St. Paul conference room. The subject was wetlands, specifically wetlands protected -- or not -- under the state's Wetland Conservation Act (WCA).

The intent of the gathering of 10 or so members of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) was to review a draft report that considers possible revisions to the WCA, this at the direction in May of Gov. Mark Dayton.

This is dry, complicated stuff, and after a few hours of listening to possible "de minimis'' exemptions to the WCA and whether or not pre-settlement wetland zones should be aligned along watershed boundaries, reasonable people might choose to nosedive over a cliff -- fiscal or any other kind.

Yet such temptations must be averted, because the real players in this process -- farm groups, developers and mining interests, among others -- have been, are and always will pay very close attention to meetings like these.

And, ultimately, they will have a big say in their outcomes.

Dayton should be commended for kick-starting renewed discussion of Minnesota wetland protection. His action follows a spat in the last legislative session in which proposals were made to "streamline'' the WCA, in part by weakening it. Which, along with ignoring the state's wetland protection law, is standard behavior for some in Minnesota, and explains in part why the 1991 act's goal of "no net loss'' of wetlands has proven so far to be mostly a fantasy.

In fact, Minnesota has continued to lose wetlands in recent decades despite the WCA and despite inclusion of Swampbuster provisions in the 1985 federal farm bill and advent of the Conservation Reserve Program in the same law.

Losses also have piled up notwithstanding the thousands of taxpayer-funded acres restored under the Wetland Reserve Program, the Minnesota River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and the Reinvest in Minnesota program.

As bad, or worse, most remaining wetlands in the state's farmlands are degraded so badly they no longer function biologically as wetlands, but instead in many cases are little more than murky, carp-filled holding ponds-- thanks in large part to Minnesota's archaic and farmer-friendly drainage law.

All of which is bad for many reasons, among them:

• Inability of the landscape relative to historical norms to withhold flood waters and to filter ground water.

• Increase of downstream river and stream siltation, resulting in fish habitat losses, as well as higher river-navigation maintenance costs.

• Loss of wetland habitat and the wildlife diversity that springs from it.

• Making all of this exponentially worse in recent years has been the accelerated placement (and replacement) of thousands of miles of drain tile throughout the state's farmlands.

Which is why revision of the WCA should begin with acknowledgment that what we've got isn't working.

The deadline for the BWSR report is mid-December, in advance of what likely will be lively WCA discussions, and actions, in the coming legislative session.

Minnesotans can, as historically they have, remain blithely aloof from the grindings-on of government minutiae, e.g., such as the meeting Wednesday, while special interests continue to have their way with the state's natural resources.

Or they can stand up for what is theirs, and for what, as taxpayers, they're losing, paying to restore -- and losing again.

Minnesotans should:

• Demand the state's remaining wetlands not be reduced further in number or quality. No net loss should mean no net loss.

• Demand the state's drainage law be updated to prevent, or at least minimize, further wetland losses.

• Demand an end to agricultural exemptions under the WCA, which, collectively over time, have neutered the law.

• Demand the vast array of state and federal regulations governing wetlands be codified, so they can be better implemented and adhered to. Demand as well sufficient funds be appropriated to state agencies and local units of government to implement wetland rules.

• Demand that the governor in his role, among others, as a member of the Land Exchange Board, support continued land acquisition by state and federal agencies to add to the state's wetland base.

Either that or, well, it's more of the same. And by the time your kids have kids, it'll all be gone.

Dennis Anderson's Twitter name is @stribdennis • danderson@startribune.com

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