Anderson: Flood leads to request for flexibility in wetlands act

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2012 - 7:43 AM

Bending the rules to fit the unique circumstances of flooding in northeastern Minnesota has some concerned.

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Summer floods washed across northeastern Minnesota in June, including the small town of Brookston, northwest. of Cloquet.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Tucked away in a bill that likely will pass the Legislature when it meets in special session Friday is language that will allow the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), the Department of Natural Resources, and in some cases soil and water conservation districts to sidestep parts of Minnesota's wetlands protection law during northeast Minnesota post-flood reconstruction.

The action follows efforts -- some successful -- in recent legislative sessions to weaken the state's Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA). Thus some conservationists are concerned the latest exclusions could be made applicable statewide by future legislatures.

But "flexibility'' in the WCA -- Wetlands Conservation Act -- is needed in the northeast, BWSR executive director John Jaschke said, because damage there to rivers, river beds and wetlands is so severe.

"In some cases we have stream corridors that have been totally blown through,'' he said. "In those situations, it's difficult to discern where a stream ran before the storm hit, or where a connected wetland was. It will take biologists, hydrologists -- whole teams -- to figure out how to put some of these streams and wetlands back where they were.''

Last spring, some conservationists urged Gov. Mark Dayton to veto a bill they said makes wetland drainage easier in Minnesota. The changes were pushed by agriculture interests. Dayton declined.

Instead, the governor formed a task force to include representatives from farm, environment and other groups to develop consensus ways the law perhaps could be made more broadly palatable, without weakening wetland protections.

The group's report is due in December. Yet not a single meeting has been held. Nor were its members consulted before the alternative procedures and standards were written into the northeast Minnesota flood relief bill.

Jaschke, himself a trained wetlands specialist, says no conspiracy is in play, though he acknowledges similar disaster relief bills approved by the Legislature in the past didn't include the same language.

They're needed this time, he said, because of northeastern Minnesota's unique landscape.

"The northeast has more wetlands than any other part of the state by far,'' he said. "And the damage is more severe.''

Mission Creek in Duluth provides an example, he said. The stream was perhaps 20 feet wide before the flood. Now its rubble-strewn channel might be 100 yards wide.

"We need flexibility to determine what the best stream reconstruction design for it will be, and to build a wetland or wetlands into that design,'' Jaschke said.

Specifically, the bill to be considered today:

• Gives BWSR, DNR and other agencies and governments leeway to determine where wetland boundaries were, or will be.

• Provides WCA leeway for debris removal from wetlands, which in some instances will require large equipment.

"There's sediment that will need removal, and even some large boulders that now sit in wetlands that will have to be moved,'' Jaschke said. "We have to be able to move that stuff around and stockpile it while a stream is being put back together.''

• Suspends procedures requiring public notice and comment for the type of wetland work that will be done -- a period usually covering at least 60 days.

"Where necessary, we want to be able to allow after-the-fact notice,'' Jaschke said. Without the change, "We would have to delay the restoration work or ignore what the law proscribes.''

Exceptions to the state's wetlands law might apply to as much as 20 percent of reconstruction work that is likely to begin next week in the northeast.

"In the end, there will be no net loss of wetlands in the area,'' Jaschke said. "Mitigation or replacement of wetlands might have to occur after the fact in some instances, instead of in advance of, or simultaneous with, as the law now says it should.

"But there will be no net loss of wetlands. We assure it.''

danderson@startribune.com

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