Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur
April 18, 2023 // National

Advocates Fear ‘Further Erosion’ of Indiana Wetlands Protection

Indiana Catholic Conference
Victoria Arthur

The Indiana Catholic Conference and numerous advocates for the environment have serious concerns about a surprise maneuver late in the legislative session that could further strip the already sparse protections for the state’s wetlands.

Last-minute language weakening the definition of wetlands was recently added to an unrelated bill, blindsiding lawmakers and advocates alike and offering no opportunity for public testimony. The move came just months after the Indiana Wetlands Task Force issued a report emphasizing that Indiana could not afford to lose any more of this critical natural resource.

Rep. Doug Miller (R-Elkhart), a legislator with strong ties to the building industry, introduced the wetlands-related amendment to Senate Bill 414, a measure dealing with sewage disposal systems. That bill had passed the Senate almost unanimously and was scheduled for a vote in the House Environmental Affairs committee when Miller presented the unrelated amendment, which despite strong opposition from several committee members narrowly passed 6-4.

“I was very disappointed,” said Indra Frank, a member of the Hoosier Environmental Council, in reaction to the unexpected move. “The bottom line is that Indiana needs its wetlands more than ever for maintaining healthy waterways, providing habitat for many species and reducing flooding. But this bill as it stands now would further reduce the protection of wetlands and we’d see more of them disappear.”

A motion to dissent was filed in the Senate on April 13 after the bill returned to that chamber carrying this and other amendments. At news time, the legislation was awaiting a conference committee hearing to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

During the March 22 House committee hearing, Miller argued that his amendment was necessary to bring the state back in line with the original intent of environmental legislation that passed the General Assembly in 2021 but that has not been completely put into practice. That year, Senate Enrolled Act 389, which was opposed by the ICC and more than 50 environmental and conservation groups, eliminated safeguards for wetlands across the state by changing their definition and classification.

Senate Enrolled Act 389 had defined three categories of wetlands, with class III considered the most ecologically important and therefore deserving of the greatest protection from development. The amendment recently introduced to Senate Bill 414 makes it much more difficult for a wetland to be classified as a class III.

Developers have been lobbying for additional reductions to the protection of wetlands, saying that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) has been upgrading Class I wetlands to class II and III.

“Testimony on Senate Bill 389 in 2021 revealed stories of farmers who were unable to address flooding issues on their properties and conflicts with IDEM agents,” said Alexander Mingus, Associate Director of the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “The ICC isn’t questioning whether any of these underlying disputes between IDEM, farmers, and developers are significant. Rather, we want to ensure that the legislature doesn’t pursue a solution to these issues that removes necessary protection for wetlands.”

Frank, a physician with expertise in environmental health, pointed to the numerous benefits of wetlands and the dangers posed by their eradication, including increased flooding. “Wetlands are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem,” Frank said. “Here in Indiana, wetlands provide habitat for 50 percent of the state’s species of small or declining populations, so ecologically they’re very important. They also act like a sponge on the landscape. An acre of wetland can store a million gallons of water or more. When we have big storms, they can help soak up that extra stormwater, which is critically important because it reduces flooding.

“Since (the House committee vote), we’ve been talking one-on-one with as many legislators as we can about the importance of preserving wetlands and how this further reduction in their protection is not advisable,” she added. “It’s ironic that we’re seeing this threat of further erosion of wetland protection immediately following the work of the Indiana Wetlands Task Force.”

That task force, an outgrowth of Senate Enrolled Act 389 two years ago, brought together a range of experts to produce a report on the status of Indiana’s wetlands and recommendations for protecting them. The following excerpt from the executive summary of the report, which was issued in October of 2022, conveys the overarching message for lawmakers and other audiences.

“Despite the diversity of views and perspectives on the task force, there is a consensus that isolated wetlands do need prioritization at the state level. The functions and values that wetlands provide are clear and significant, and Indiana is at a point where the cumulative loss of wetlands is having a measurable negative impact on residents, particularly from a water quality and flooding standpoint.”

For the ICC, the long history of Catholic social teaching on proper stewardship of the environment forms the basis for engagement on these issues. In line with its opposition to Senate Enrolled Act 389, the ICC has voiced serious concerns with the amendment to Senate Bill 414.

“The Indiana Wetlands Task Force offered great suggestions, and the legislature hasn’t taken up trying to explore any of them,” Mingus said. “Instead, now we have this amendment. Everyone who watches this issue and was involved back in 2021 was very surprised to see it.

“Ultimately, we don’t want the protection of our state’s few remaining wetlands to be the casualty of arguments over whether IDEM is using its authority properly.”

Instead, Mingus encourages the examination of higher principles, such as those outlined by Pope Francis in his groundbreaking 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” which was directed toward all people of good will.

“When we ask ourselves why we should care about ecological issues, or how wetlands affect us as humans, it’s good to reinvestigate some of the Church’s teaching,” Mingus said. “Everything in our environment has an impact on human flourishing and the flourishing of all creation.”

To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit This website includes access to ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.

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