Nov 4, 2013
Michigan wetlands law awaits EPA review

While Public Act (PA) 98 was signed into law in July and maintains the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) ability to regulate agricultural development on wetlands, its status remains in limbo awaiting federal EPA sign-off on the new legislation.

“EPA is still reviewing our program,” said Laura Campbell, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Ecology Department. “They’re supposed to be checking for compliance with the Clean Water Act.”

Like other federal agencies, EPA wasn’t fully operational during the government shutdown in October.

Opposition to the new laws coming from environmental groups, including Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and the Michigan Environmental Council, was among the factors compelling DEQ to seek EPA review. EPA normally reviews new laws related to the Clean Water Act anyway, and it can be a lengthy process that could lead to a withdrawal of Michigan’s delegated authority to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Meanwhile, general wetlands mitigation exemptions for agricultural property owners expired Oct. 1, and new permitting categories were being developed by DEQ, Campbell said.

“Exemptions ended Oct. 1 for agricultural activity in general,” she stressed. “If you are moving into new wetlands ground, there is now a permitting requirement.”

She said blueberry growers were to receive special considerations in the new law, but the status of those allowances remains in flux.

“The DEQ is working on the new permitting categories they were obligated to develop by the Oct. 1 deadline,” Campbell said. “Blueberry growers have been waiting to see how to move forward, and we’ve expressed those concerns to the department. The deadline has come and gone. There is not yet a general permit for blueberry operations for public comment. We’re working with them on that and we are making progress.”

She acknowledged blueberry operators seeking to move forward on developing in wetlands areas “are in kind of a difficult position right now.”

“For blueberry growers, the exemptions are needed,” she said. “It’s not like they are growing corn. They’re dependent on the hydric soils and the water table and hydrology mostly found in wetland areas. Given that growers are limited where they can operate in an upland state, and given the importance of the blueberry industry to the state, we felt it was real important to get provisions in the statute so that growers could have a lot more options and be able to use a conservation easement to fulfill mitigation requirements.”

Campbell said she was hopeful the permit process could be clarified soon, and encouraged growers to contact the Farm Bureau and attend anticipated meetings with the DEQ “to find out what actions they can take and what things they should do.

“Be aware DEQ is enacting the law,” she said. “Be involved in the talks we are having with the department. Make sure our input as farmers and operators is able to be heard as new permit processes are developed.”

Campbell said Farm Bureau was supportive of keeping DEQ in authority over the wetlands – with the establishment of a permitting process – instead of having the control revert to EPA.

“One of the key reasons why we supported the bill is those exemptions were going to go away even if the EPA stepped in,” she said. “By keeping the program here in the state and working with local agents instead of the EPA,” there was a reduction in the bureaucracy farmers would face.

“Now we want to get some education out into the countryside so there’s an understanding of what’s in the bill,” Campbell said. Farmers should know “any new obligations they have and their continuing rights under the bill so everybody is on the same page. They need a clear understanding of what changes were made and why.”

Gary Pullano

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