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Changes to Wetlands Conservation Act endanger wetlands

Until now, protections for wetlands have been fragile at best. But the new rules, apparently driven by proposed mines, will move this to a whole new level.

Wetlands in Cook County, Minnesota
Courtesy of Judy Helgen

Late in 2015, amendments to the 1991 Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA) were passed by the Minnesota Legislature. If implemented after upcoming rule-making, the changes [PDF] will result in a widespread loss of natural wetlands, not only in northeastern Minnesota but potentially statewide.

Until now, protections for wetlands have been fragile at best. But the new rules, apparently driven by proposed mines, will move this to a whole new level. This concerns many citizens who work to raise the status of wetlands in the state.

Minnesota’s Board of Water and Soil Resources administers the WCA. Recently, I sat in on two of BWSR’s stakeholder meetings, where I witnessed the WCA’s lofty goals of protecting wetlands evaporate. Lost in the discourse were any plans to fulfill the law’s stated goal of achieving no net loss in the quantity, quality and biological diversity of Minnesota’s existing wetlands (see MN 8420.0100).

A surreal feeling crept over me, a growing sense that natural wetlands — so diverse and so endangered in Minnesota — were not really in the room of 60 or more people. Pushed into the background, they were lumped into one, problematic category. Below, I consider two of several major changes in WCA:

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1. Alternative mitigation strategies
A new approach will allow restoration of non-wetland areas to provide the mitigation that is required if a project will destroy wetlands. Planting native vegetation on agricultural land, creating storm water ponds, or preserving non-wetland habitat (forests for instance) might qualify. Improving lakes may get credit. At the meetings, lengthy lectures with many slides detailed various approaches to stream and riparian buffer restorations, e.g., re-establishing meanders in channelized streams. Ways to restore or recreate various types of wetlands were literally not in the picture.

How can a trout stream possibly replace the unique kind of biodiversity found in natural wetlands, which have diverse plant communities and dozens of kinds of aquatic invertebrates that do not occur in streams? They can’t, obviously. But in the eyes of many, a trout stream has high public value and restoring one would help improve aquatic resources (except for the wetlands).

Improvements to non-wetland habitats, aquatic or upland, are all laudable actions. They should be done in any regard. But not as credit for lost wetlands. This will completely undermine the goals of our wetlands law.

2. Restoring wetlands and habitats in ‘high priority’ areas statewide
Ideally, if wetlands have to be destroyed, the damage should be mitigated by restoring other wetlands in the same watershed to replace the ecological benefits that will be lost. But under the new proposed rules, state staff are looking into allowing mitigations in “high priority” areas, which are elsewhere in the state. Thus, mining impacts to wetlands could be compensated far away from the watershed of impact, by improving a degraded stream in southwestern Minnesota, or restoring wetlands or other habitats.

Judy Helgen
Photo by Deborah Rose
Judy Helgen

In the Lake Superior watershed, thousands of acres of fens and bogs will be destroyed by PolyMet Mining Corp. alone, and many more by other mines that await permits from DNR. More effort should be made to require that restorations occur there. The St. Louis River watershed, for instance, has sites where wetlands could be restored [PDF]. These should be a priority that could help a troubled river that flows into Lake Superior.     

During the meeting, staff from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and BWSR commented that “plants are poor indicators of wetlands.” One said it’s because “plants change.” I sat stunned. For one thing, the 1987 Army Corps of Engineers Wetland Delineation Manual [PDF], used by Minnesota, defines wetlands based on plant communities (along with hydrology and hydric soils). For another, scientists at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for years have been assessing wetlands health using a scientifically validated index based on plant community changes to rate wetlands from “excellent” to “poor” (i.e. polluted) condition. This may signal a shift away from biological identifications unique to wetlands, making it easier to replace their “public values” in other ways; easier to dodge the goal of achieving no net loss of wetland biodiversity.

An ethic of wetlands?                                                                                                

At the recent Governor’s Water Summit (Feb. 27), Gov. Mark Dayton urged us to “establish an ethic of clean water practices ….” Dayton said this should be our ethic and every Minnesotan’s responsibility; anything less is unacceptable. He expressed concern that reports from MPCA have concluded that half the lakes and streams in southern Minnesota are not safe for fishing or swimming. Also, excessive levels of unhealthy nitrates have been documented in nearly two-thirds of wells in central Minnesota.

The governor probably did not know that wetlands are similarly degraded, according to MPCA’s biological assessment evaluations [PDF]. In much of the state, more than half the wetlands are rated in “Poor” condition (aka impaired or polluted) using the plant biological index. That translates to roughly 70,000 wetlands.

The public knows little about the life of wetlands, the biodiversity within bogs, fens, emergent marshes, ephemeral pools and more. Most people lack familiarity with the varied plant and animal life that depend on healthy wetlands and the impacts of pollution on them. Even moose need them: They have to consume wetland plants to stock up on needed sodium. Lack of knowledge makes it harder to want to save wet areas, harder to form “an ethic of wetlands,” and harder to care that so many are degraded.

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Historically denigrated

Historically, wetlands have been denigrated as slimy mires, as places where one bogs down. They’ve served as metaphors for danger, disease and decay, not places to love and protect. In addition, the desire to drain them for development, mining and agriculture has long made wetlands vulnerable. But attitudes are changing.

For 20 years, MPCA staff and metro counties have trained and supported teams of dedicated citizen volunteers who invest a lot of time learning and carrying out biological surveys to assess the health of their local wetlands (see WHEP, Wetlands Health Evaluation Project). Engaged citizens now see their wetlands as valuable, and, if harmed by pollution, in need of help. In addition, a host of environmental groups are working to protect wetlands (Sierra Club, Isaak Walton League, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and several others). Going forward, we all need to pay attention to BWSR’s rule-making process that will allow implementation of actions that may undo current wetlands protections.

We need an ethic for wetlands — and a passion to protect them based on personal knowledge gained from going there, observing bird life, wading in, and listening: knowledge that could border on the spiritual. Go out this spring at night and listen to the frogs (get the CD of Minnesota frogs and toads). Look into a tiny temporary pond to see short-lived fairy shrimp swimming on their backs. Track dragonflies as they emerge from marshes and zoom around eating mosquitoes. Watch diverse beetles and bugs, mayflies and caddisflies zip around in the clear water. Enjoy the tiny crustaceans, miniature clams, and variously shaped snails. Volunteer with WHEP, wade in and learn. If you do, you will see wetlands with new eyes, and, I hope, you will want to protect them.

Judy Helgen, Ph.D., is a retired research scientist from MPCA, where she worked to develop an invertebrate biological index for rating wetlands, helped start the WHEP volunteer monitoring program, and led the state’s investigation into widespread deformities in frogs. Her book, “Peril in the Ponds: Deformed Frogs, Politics, and a Biologist’s Quest,” was published in 2012 by the University of Massachusetts Press. She lives in Roseville.


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