Environment Picture

Wetlands deal: Bright spot in a bleak picture for funding natural resource protection

Deal averts governor's plan to give away state water protection program
Michigan—not Washington DC—will maintain control of the state’s wetlands under a deal reached in large part because of the aggressive advocacy of Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) member group Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

The wetlands success was a bright spot framed against a bleak budget backdrop that saw further evisceration of state budgets for environmental protection in Michigan. Even the much ballyhooed recombination of state environmental protection agencies will not salvage a woefully underfunded priority, say longtime environmental observers.

The wetlands deal, approved by the state legislature, keeps Michigan’s wetlands program running at the state level for an additional three years. Gov. Jennifer Granholm had proposed sending the program to the federal government over the objections of environmental and conservation groups across the Great Lakes State.

MEC joined Tip of the Mitt in negotiating a final agreement among a diverse group that included lawmakers from both parties and representatives of industry, agriculture, business, and conservation.

Environmental groups applauded the efforts of the legislature to protect these critical resources but continue to worry about long-term funding and protection for the program. The deal only funds state oversight for three years, using a combination of user fees, federal dollars and money from unclaimed returnable bottle deposits.

Wetlands are crucial for the roles they play: protecting neighborhoods from flooding, cleansing water before it reaches lakes and streams, safeguarding the purity of well water and providing vital habitat for fish and other water-dependent wildlife.

“Keeping the program in Michigan is certainly an environmental issue, but it is also a very pressing economic issue,” said Grenetta Thomassey, policy director at Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. “Sen. Patty Birkholz, Rep. Rebekah Warren, and Rep. Dan Scripps all understood that and worked tirelessly to help keep the needed perspective. Relinquishing the program would have meant unacceptable work-related delays as our state climbs out of the recession, in addition to increasing the likelihood of damaging environmental violations. And keeping the program here, and funded, keeps our prospects much higher for being eligible for Great Lakes Restoration funding from the federal government, which will also create jobs as it restores wetlands and provides clean water infrastructure.”

Recombination no panacea
Unfortunately, the retention of the wetland program was the only good news for natural resources in a budget deal that includes drastic reductions in general fund support for Michigan’s public health, water protection and natural resources management. In the case of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the cuts amount to a 39% reduction in general funds for programs designed to protect public health.

The upcoming recombination of the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality was supported by MEC but will not result in significant budget savings. Nor is it even an incremental step toward adequate funding for resource protection.

The proposed cuts will result in polluters not being inspected, complaints from the public not being investigated and increases in illegal toxic discharges to Michigan’s waterways and landscapes.

Recently, the DEQ has seen the return of practices not experienced since the 1970s—burying barrels in back fields, fish kills due to illegal dumping in streams, and contamination of drinking water sources from illegal and virtually unmonitored pollution.

The cuts also will slow the issuance of permits to businesses and stop the redevelopment of contaminated brownfield sites that are necessary to revitalizing our cities and towns.

“If Michigan is trying to sell Pure Michigan, it needs to bolster these programs, or our water wonderland will be in serious trouble,” said MEC President Chris Kolb. “Failure to fund these programs damages the public’s health and hurts Michigan’s ability to recover from this recession.”
RELATED TOPICS: water protection
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