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New Wetlands Rules Begin To Roll Out

Susan Bence

Last spring, Governor Walker signed a new wetlands bill into law.

Supporters consider it a “job creator” because it allows developers to build on wetlands, as long as they create a substitute somewhere else.

Although the law took effect on July 1, the DNR is gradually implementing the provisions.

Tuesday, the agency will hold an informational hearing on the new “general” permit, designed to accommodate small projects.

In the past, Wisconsin asked developers to minimize harm to wetlands and mitigate any damaged caused.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence visited a completed project outside Oconomowoc to learn how effective the former preservation effort has been.

Alice Thompson stands in the midst of a field, housing to her right, a strip mall at her back.

She shields her eyes from the summer sun and dispassionately surveys her work.

“This turned out really nice,” Thompson says.

Just over a decade ago, there was nothing here but cornfields.

That’s when a developer hired the wetland specialist - to figure out how to work around a couple of “wet spots”.

They were remnants of the Ice Age – scooped out kettles, able to hold a lot of water and reservoirs of wildlife.

“Wisconsin has a lot of these potholes because of our glacial history; there’s many, many of these sort of potholes all throughout this southern part of the state,” Thompson says.

We stroll closer to a pond ringed by willows.

The crickety call of Chorus frogs intensifies with every step.

“ So this is like 2 ½ acres, there are frogs; you can see redwing blackbirds there,” Thompson says.

While this ecosystem was worth saving, Thompson says a smaller wetland nearby was in bad ecological shape.

“ It had been farmed repeatedly ; it has some corn stalks, had some cattail, a little bit of standing water but it was really not functioning at that point, in what we think of is a wetland sense; it was pretty low functioning,” Thompson says.

Her assessment allowed the beleaguered wetland to covered and developed.

Thompson passed off that job to an engineering firm.

“You have to bring in clean fill. It’s part of the whole engineered grading create this site to be buildable,” Thompson says.

The property owner opted to “make up for” that lost wetland as close to the site as possible.

It fell to Thompson to come up with a plan.

She started digging into a century’s worth of farming sediment alongside a creek that slices across the property’s southwest corner and unearthed a covered wetland basin.

“And if we scraped that out, that we would recreate this wetland close to the creek,” Thompson says.

The DNR stamped its approval on Thomspon’s restoration plan.

Earth movers skimmed away 1 ½ to 2 feet of agricultural leftovers, freeing intensively black soils that had held water for centuries.

“This is right about where the bulldozers stopped. So they scraped the soil that had been deposited during farming and and then we seeded it with wetland seed and monitored it for five years and this whole area here was planted to prairie plants. So from that edge this 75 foot buffer, actually this might be 100 feet at this point,” Thompson says.

Credit Susan Bence

Thompson says she coordinated a half-dozen projects similar to this one.

“That’s a huge net win,” Thompson says.

Despite success stories, Thompson admits her onsite mitigation caseload dwindled even before state leaders recently eased wetlands rules.

She says a major contributor to the decline was an understaffed DNR, and because wetlands projects such as this require a lot of oversight.

Since Thompson’s monitoring period ended here, northwest of the wetland, housing complexes have popped up.

Along with the, workers engineered a sizable storm water pond.

“You see that concrete V over there, when the water – when the water gets high enough then it flows to the wetland. And you know I think, I honestly think the developers were sensitive to the site,” Thompson says.

Taking off her business hat and donning the scientist’s, Thompson says in order for wetlands to have “greatest value” – they must remain intact.

“If you have wetland with development right up to the edge, you’re not going to have a same wetland as if you have a buffer not only to soften the water so that it filters through the grass before it gets to the wetland, but also to allow wildlife to nest there and travel there and hunt food there. So it gives better functioning to the wetland,” Thompson says.

According to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association the state has lost more than half of its nearly 10 million acres of diverse wetlands to agriculture, roads and other development.

Under Wisconsin’s new general wetlands permitting rule, the subject of Tuesday’s hearing, the DNR will not require mitigation of any kind for projects affecting less than a quarter acre; if the agency deems their impact on the environment to be minimal.