A county commissioner's view: Wetlands rules need common senseWetlands have been a part of Minnesota history since statehood in 1858.
By: Leon Olson, for the News Tribune
Wetlands have been a part of Minnesota history since statehood in 1858.
Some of the highlights in the 1997 Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act manual include 1858’s Chapter 73, which allowed for the formation of private corporations for the purpose of draining land and creating water privileges; Chapter 108 in 1883, which allowed counties to authorize construction of ditches or water courses to drain shallow, grassy and meandering lakes less than 4 feet deep; and Chapter 257 in 1897, which created the State Drainage Commission to supervise and control the construction and maintenance of state ditches. Back then the purpose of drainage was to promote the settlement of lands granted to the state by the federal government.
By 1931, things began to turn in a different direction. The dry years and the Depression halted wide-scale drainage efforts. Chapter 65 abolished the State Drainage Commission and created the Department of Drainage and Waters, which evolved into the Department of Conservation and, eventually, into the Department of Natural Resources. In 1947, under Chapter 142, navigable waters, which provided substantial public use, were defined to be public waters and could not be drained without a permit from the commissioner of conservation.
The first “Save the Wetlands” program was enacted in 1951 and was funded partially with federal dollars. Finally, in 1991, Minnesota passed the Wetland Conservation Act, Chapter 354. This act created a no-net-loss policy that required the mitigation, or replacement, of drained or filled wetlands and allowed for local governments to have administrative authority.
OK, well, wetlands are good.
I agree we need them to provide for water filtration, which cleans up water before it reaches a lake, stream or groundwater supply; for the storage of floodwaters; and for habitat for plants, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and wildlife.
But I disagree with today’s rules for the mitigation of wetland impacts caused by road reconstruction, and here’s why.
Current state rules require projects affecting wetlands in counties that have lost more than 50 percent of their pre-settlement wetlands due to drainage projects during the 19th and 20th centuries to replace those wetlands at a 2:1 ratio. Counties that have 80 percent of their wetlands remaining are required to replace wetlands at a 1:1 ratio. Kittson County is in the 2:1 zone, and St. Louis County is in 1:1.
Today, most road projects occur in the same corridor as the original project. To meet new safety guidelines, deficient roads with higher traffic levels are widened and slopes are flattened during a project, and this requires a small amount of additional right of way for the road authority to work in and build the new typical road cross section. In some instances the old road ditch is filled in and a new ditch is built directly adjacent to the original ditch. If the old ditch was classified as a wetland, this is counted as an impact and the area must be mitigated.
It would make more sense if the new ditch passing through the wetland area could mitigate the filling of the old ditch. After all, filling a wetland requires a permit, but excavating a wetland does not. In addition, this would be an on-site mitigation and would not require the withdrawal of wetland banking credits from a private owner, which is funded by the state for road projects but has a cost of nearly $10,000 per acre. Unfortunately, the state’s Wetland Conservation Act rules and the federal 404 Public Waters rules in Title IV of the Clean Waters Act administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do not recognize this as an acceptable means of wetland mitigation. If it did, taxpayers would be saved thousands of dollars in wetland banking credit withdrawals for every road reconstruction project.
But in this day and age, it seems, things that make sense never get approved within higher levels of government. If you have a suggestion concerning wetland mitigation, please relay it to me or other elected officials.
Leon Olson of Lancaster, Minn., is a Kittson County commissioner.