Dennis Anderson
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It's widely believed a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling will weaken wetlands protection nationwide but that the ruling will have minimal impact in Minnesota, thanks to the state's Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA) passed in 1991.

Championed by the late DFL Rep. Willard Munger of Duluth, the WCA is the most ambitious wetlands protection law in any state. And indeed, since its passage, Minnesota has experienced minimal wetlands acreage losses.

Yet, counterintuitive as it might seem, the state since 1991 has lost an incalculable number of functional and partially functional wetlands, meaning those that hold relatively clear, shallow water, are nutrient rich, are inhabited primarily by diverse native plants, support a variety of wildlife and are not overrun by invasive species.

Losses of functional wetlands are occurring even though the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), the agency ultimately charged with administering the WCA — in partnership with local Soil and Water Conservation districts — might be the best managed, and most effective, of all state agencies.

Industrialized agriculture and an ever-expanding human population are to blame for the wetlands losses.

But blame you and me, too. And our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

We, and they, said little, or nothing, during the last century while Congress wrote federal programs incentivizing farmers to drain wetlands.

Blame us also for encouraging, if only implicitly, Minnesota cities large and small, and the state, to pull the plug on countless Minnesota wetlands, draining and/or rerouting them to provide us places to build homes and drive cars.

Now only remnants of these valuable resources — as beautiful to the trained eye as any mountain or seashore — remain on the landscape.

Wondering why Minneapolis is suddenly pockmarked with sinkholes, or why basements of homes in the Minnehaha Creek watershed are filling with water?

The same reason we don't have the numbers of ducks we once did, or red-winged blackbirds or muskrats.

And the same reason, essentially, why so many wells in southern Minnesota are tainted with nitrates and other farm chemicals.

Each is a victim of Minnesotans' cavalier attitudes toward water, wetlands in particular, dating to before statehood — attitudes that today, unfortunately, still prevail among the general populace and, even more unfortunately, among officeholders.

In 1836, the southern Minnesota French-Indian trader, Joseph Laframboise, told a visitor, "We can give you plenty of buffalo meat and tongues, wild geese, and ducks, prairie hens, young swan, beaver tails, pigeons … there is plenty of sport here and in a short distance you will find buffalo."

But soon after Congress passed its first Swamp Lands Act, in 1849, awarding Minnesota and 14 other states 65 million acres of wet, low ground, those and other critters began to disappear.

The federal government wanted the lands drained to make way for settlers and to clear routes for railroads so pioneers' crops could get to market.

By 1930, Minnesota's portion of the federal government's largesse — 5 million acres of wetlands — had been drained.

Today, while about 50% of Minnesota's original wetlands remain statewide, only about 15% of pre-settlement wet areas exist in the southern and western parts of the state.

And yet … rain still falls today as copiously (or more so) across Minnesota as it did in Laframboise's era, and snow still melts in the same amounts.

Consequently, the same quantities of water are being squeezed into far fewer and far smaller wetlands, meaning many of today's wetlands are much deeper than they historically have been — too deep, importantly, to support the vegetation and wildlife they once did, and too deep, oftentimes, to retain seasonal floods while also cleansing the water people need for drinking and other purposes.

But not too deep to hold tons of bottom-rooting carp.

The recent Supreme Court decision might, or might not, make matters worse in Minnesota.

The ruling primarily loosens protection on wetlands that are not obviously connected to larger, federally administered waters.

Until the court's ruling, these more disparate wetlands have been protected under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act, administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.

No one knows exactly how many of these disconnected wetlands exist in Minnesota, but BSWR officials are trying to find out. And no one knows yet, and likely won't for a year or more, the specific rules the Environmental Protection Agency and/or the Army Corps of Engineers will write to put into action what the Supreme Court has decided.

That said, in southern and western Minnesota, many of these more remote wetlands, particularly the smaller ones, are already gone. In some cases this is because they were 2 acres or less in size and the WCA exempted them from protection. In other cases, these smaller, often seasonal wetlands have simply disappeared — lost to pattern tiling, a system of drains and pipes installed by farmers beneath crop fields to whisk away small pools of temporary surface water.

Such "ephemeral'' wetlands are critically important to ducks, particularly during spring migrations and nesting seasons, because they allow waterfowl to feast on soil invertebrates, which are energy-rich.

Given that water is one of the world's most valuable commodities, the question is:

Can any of this be improved?


For starters, in Minnesota, taxes on functioning wetlands located on private property, or wetlands that can be made functional, could be lowered to more closely reflect their public benefit. This might also spur more wetland restorations of the kind Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BWSR and others are already doing.

That would be the right thing to do, and would benefit everyone.

But the public would have to demand it, something you and I, and others, have never done.