Anyone who has seen first-hand the damage done by flooding (for instance, if you live along rivers like the Des Plaines, Fox, Rock, Mississippi, etc.) knows that lives, livelihoods, and even whole towns can be washed away.
In recent years our major river systems have lost their best defense against floods – wetlands. Studies of the disastrous floods of 1993 showed that protecting just 3% of the Upper Mississippi River watershed as wetland could have absorbed 100% of that flood. In light of the severe threat posed by flooding, and the importance of wetlands in guarding against this threat, many local governments in Illinois have enacted or proposed common-sense protections for our remaining wetland areas. In northeast Illinois, Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, and McHenry counties have all adopted programs to protect homes and businesses from flooding by protecting their remaining wetland areas from destruction. Now counties in the metro East and the ring of counties around the collars are showing interest in similar programs.
Wetlands act as nature’s sponges, soaking up rainwater that would otherwise gush into river systems and create flood events - a single acre of wetland can store over a million gallons of rainwater. They also happen to filter pollution out of our drinking water, and provide a home for many species of wildlife. Unfortunately, 90% of Illinois’ original wetlands are gone. One can see why local governments don’t want to lose what we have left of these multi-tasking ecosystems.
Now, however, powerful developer lobbyists in Springfield are trying to take away the ability of local governments to protect themselves against flooding by protecting wetlands. Developers are backing Senate Bill 761, which actually prohibits any local government from acting to protect its citizens, homes, and businesses from devastating flooding by protecting wetland areas.
Senate Bill 761 would replace the locally funded, coordinated effort of local governments with a statewide program run by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Dozens of local professionals would be replaced by a handful of bureaucrats in Springfield without the knowledge or funding to do the same job. In the past, when legislators have proposed giving wetland protection authority to Illinois EPA, the Agency registered its opposition, citing insufficient staff to carry out the program.
SB 761 also has a giant loophole big enough to drive a bulldozer through. Any wetland smaller than a half acre would be totally exempt from the bill. Lake County estimates that eliminates protection for over half of their remaining wetlands. For every half-acre wetland that gets filled in under SB 761, where will the 500,000 gallons of rainwater that it is now soaking up end up?
A few overworked bureaucrats in Springfield replacing strong, locally funded flood control programs will worsen the state’s budget crisis, but does it make us safer? If you own a home or business near a floodplain, it should make you nervous, but apparently it makes Illinois’ development lobby hungry. Without local watchdogs protecting communities from flooding, they’re betting they can squeeze a few more lots into a subdivision, avoid flood control requirements, and increase their short-term bottom line, and leave someone else to deal with the water.
Conservationists prefer a wetland protection program that respects the will of local governments to protect their citizens, and to fund these programs locally. Legislation previously approved by the Illinois House would maintain local wetland protection programs, while empowering the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to protect wetlands elsewhere. After all, the IDNR houses the state’s experts in flood control and wildlife habitat.
Senate Bill 761 rejects this idea of partnering with local governments to protect us all. If your goal is to build maximum density on wetlands that used to hold back floodwater, then laying off those who protect us from floods makes sense. For the rest of us, a program that welcomes local efforts to protect wetlands while utilizing IDNR’s expertise seems the best approach.
SB 761 will be heard at 3pm Wednesday in the Illinois House Energy and Environment Committee.