A bill to end protections for Tennessee wetlands draws pushback

Published 4:49 pm Thursday, February 1, 2024

By Anita Wadhwani

Tennessee Lookout

State lawmakers are considering a rollback of protections for nearly half a million acres of wetlands in Tennessee, a proposal that is raising concerns over its potential to worsen flooding, deplete and degrade drinking water and impact hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.

The bill would eliminate rules that currently require developers and landowners to get state approval and pay mitigation fees before filling in, dredging or otherwise disturbing wetlands.

Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Republican from Collierville who is sponsoring the bill, called the measure a needed check on “bureaucratic overreach” and “unnecessary inflation on the cost of construction.”

Getting state approval to build on wetlands is an expensive, time-consuming and often frustrating process for developers, said Vaughan, a West Tennessee developer. Vaughan also accused state environmental regulators of stretching the definition of wetland – to include muddied tractor ruts or ditches where cattails sprout from runoff.

The measure has drawn pushback from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which is responsible for wetland protection.

“We at TDEC fear the proposal could result in greater back-end costs,” Gregory Young, the agency’s deputy commissioner, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Alex Pellom, chief of staff for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, cautioned the bill could lead to an increase flooding; the state has already suffered its wettest years in history since 2019, leading to devastating floods, billions of dollars in property damage and loss of life.

Environmental groups that include the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Harpeth Conservancy and Protect Our Aquifers have also urged lawmakers to oppose the bill.

Vaughan’s bill was introduced on the heels of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that narrowed federal protections of wetlands, leaving it up to states to set their own rules.

The court concluded that only wetlands that have a surface water connection to rivers, lakes and oceans fall under federal oversight and are subject to Clean Water Act regulations.

The majority of Tennessee’s wetlands — 432,850 out of  the state’s 787,000 acres of wetland — do not have a surface connection to a water source, according to TDEC. It is these wetlands Vaughan is seeking to remove from state oversight and protection.

Wetlands — bogs, marshes, swamps and other areas that are wet for most or all of the year — perform several key functions.

They serve as fish and wildlife habitat, and draw hunters and anglers. They can capture large amounts of water, preventing flooding. A single acre of wetland can store one million gallons of water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, providing a buffer against drought.

Wetlands also serve as a natural filter for runoff, removing pollutants. And they can help resupply underground aquifers and wells that Tennesseans rely on for drinking water. Wetlands without a surface connection to a body of water frequently are connected to underground water sources.

The bill will be heard again next week in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.