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Are prairie potholes important?

WORTHINGTON -- They may be called prairie potholes, sloughs or waterways, and they dot the Minnesota landscape like black spots cover a Dalmation.

Still, Minnesota's Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA) is reporting net losses of wetlands across the state, and agencies want to either stop those losses or change the WCA, legislation which has already been amended eight times since it was enacted in 1991.

More than 45 organizations --from the Sierra Club to the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Army Corps of Engineers -- gathered in mid-November in St. Cloud for a roundtable to discuss the options. The meeting was hosted by the state's Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR).

Paul Langseth, of rural Worthington, is a recent addition to the state's BWSR board, having been appointed in July. He attended the roundtable in St. Cloud, and plans to attend meetings including the AMC annual conference in December to hear what other groups think of the WCA legislation and how they want to proceed.

Langseth said BWSR is tasked with finding a solution and making a recommendation to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The governor has long said he wants to see no net loss in quantity, quality and biological diversity of wetlands in the state -- a task to which, for now, isn't being adhered.

In a recent report completed by BWSR's wetlands committee, statistics showed 400 to 600 acres of regulated wetlands are lost annually. At the same time, an estimated 50,000 acres of non-regulated wetlands are being created per year. While it seems obvious the state is gaining wetlands, the issue is over regulated versus non-regulated wetlands.

Basically, any wetlands restoration work done by groups such as Ducks Unlimited or private landowners counts toward non-regulated acres.

"The idea is we want to protect what wetlands we have, but we're not doing 100 percent by it and that's what the law requires," Langseth said. "The law deals only with regulated acres."

While eliminated wetlands acreage must be replaced, areas measuring less than 10,000 square feet are exempt from the law.

"We think we're losing more acres in the exempt or unrecorded area than what's reported," Langseth said.

While some would like to see the non-regulated wetlands count toward the state's regulated acreage, Langseth said that could be a detriment to what the state has worked for.

"Then we're back to the free-for-all we had before with filling in sloughs and I don't think Minnesota wants that -- I don't think we want to go back to that," he said.

Changing times

Over the years, hundreds of acres of wetlands have been filled in for the greater good, and that is no different in Nobles County. Langseth said prairie potholes or sloughs were lost for the sake of development -- whether it was for a paved road or a piece of property. Prairie Elementary, on Worthington's southwest side, for instance was once a slough.

"Several areas were basically sloughs and were dredge-filled," Langseth said.

While the law now states wetland acres must be replaced -- on a 2:1 margin in southern Minnesota and a 1:1 margin in northern Minnesota -- the quality of those developed wetlands isn't the same as those eliminated. Sure, they may attract wildlife just as a natural slough would, but they likely don't have the same type of habitat in place. Langseth said lost wetlands could result in lost habitat for Minnesota's state flower, the ladyslipper, or impact endangered species like the Topeka Shiner.

Exploring the options

Langseth said BWSR has basically three options with the existing WCA. The group can either recommend no changes to the act, request legislative action to allow for minimal loss of wetlands, or change the mitigation/replacement ratios or limit the number/kind of exemptions to decrease acres lost.

Some members of AMC fear increased regulations could add to the cost of doing business, such as putting in a county or township road or developing property. The WCA is expected to be among their topics of discussion when they meet in early December in Rochester.

"Counties are very afraid of what increased regulations would do because it adds cost," Langseth said.

Rather than create new wetlands whenever a wetland is impacted due to road construction in Nobles County, public works director Stephen Schnieder said they purchase credits from the DNR's wetlands bank. The bank pools the acreage needed by counties to make larger wetland areas -- land purchases made possible through public funding. Schnieder said the state recently made $3 million available to the wetlands bank for wetlands creation.

If wetlands continue to be taken out of production, the concern is that the cost to purchase land to replace those wetlands will increase.

Nobles County Commissioner Diane Thier, who raised the issue at a recent board meeting, said she doesn't see the need to keep the "no net loss" wording in the existing legislation.

"We need wetlands, but use common sense," she said. "Some of these wetlands are lost, but are they really needed?"

Langseth said environmental groups represented at the roundtable believe those wetlands are needed.

"Environmental groups want no net loss (of wetland acres) -- they don't want you to create a trapezoidal (area) and call it a wetland," he said.

After two days of discussing the WCA at the St. Cloud roudtable, Langseth said the consensus was there is no consensus -- at least not yet. BWSR's wetland committee is set to meet soon to develop a recommendation. That recommendation will then go to the agency's Clean Water Cabinet, and then on to the full BWSR board on Dec. 13.

Both Langseth and Nobles County Commissioners encourage feedback on the WCA issue.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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