(WXYZ) — Flooding from the June downpours cost families across southeast Michigan at least $140 million.
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As the rainstorms and flooding in our area become more severe, we wanted to understand why this is happening. It turns out, wetlands play a key role in preventing flooding. So why is a rare wetland about to be destroyed?
The flooding in June demolished basements, trapped trucks on freeways, and broke hearts and wallets all over metro Detroit.
Scientists say climate change is prompting more intense storms, leading to the flooding. But part of the problem here in Michigan is the loss of our wetlands: those marshy, brushy, wooded areas that hold stormwater like a sponge-- preventing flooding nearby.
“They are the ecosystem that is really the most endangered,” said Joan Nassauer, a professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. “Wetlands were in the way of agriculture, so they were drained. They were in the way of developments, so they were filled. So what we have left is just a fraction of what we had before.”
From 1800 to 2005, state figures show Wayne County lost at least 90% of its wetlands, Macomb lost 86%, and Oakland County lost more than 41%.
“Every time we lose wetlands, we’re just incurring a lot more economic cost on us personally when the water comes into our basement,” said Wayne County Conservation District Executive Director Dr. Connie Boris.
Boris says as of 2021, it’s estimated that Wayne County has lost close to 98% of its original wetlands. And Boris says wetlands play a crucial role when it rains.
“They don’t just act as a flood storage infrastructure, they also act as a wastewater treatment plant, because they filter the water. So you’ve got a win-win with this,” said Boris.
“If wetlands act as a sponge during a storm, Boris says a very rare type of wetland called a Wet Mesic Flatwood does something more.
“It’s a super sponge!! It really holds it, because it has such big trees with roots, all taking up water,” said Boris.
Boris says Wet Mesic Flatwoods are irreplaceable, and she’s furious that the state of Michigan is allowing one of those wetlands to be destroyed.
“We don’t want to destroy the habitat for the bald eagle, the Indiana bat, the coopers hawk,” said Boris.
Boris says there are only seven of these rare wetlands known to be left in Michigan, including one on Belle Isle. One of them is on property in Van Buren Township near I-275 that’s owned by Waste Management.
Back in 2019, the company asked Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to allow them expand their Woodland Meadows landfill. Waste Management told the state they desperately needed more room at the landfill, but expanding their capacity meant filling in at least 44 acres of wetland… including about 12 acres of rare Wet Mesic Flatwoods.
In October of 2020, EGLE approved their permit.
The Wayne County Conservation District tried to challenge that decision in court but lost. An Administrative Law Judge said the Conservation District did not have standing in the case.
“Why would the state approve a permit to destroy a rare wetland,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
“The state uses sort of a triage where we first look at whether the damage to the wetland is avoidable. And in this case, Waste Management had a piece of property and had nowhere else reasonably to go to expand that property,” said EGLE Communications Manager Hugh McDiarmid.
McDiarmid said the state is requiring Waste Management to create and restore 70 acres of new wetland and to preserve 22 acres of existing forested wetland in exchange for the landfill expansion. But that mitigation will be miles away in a different watershed.
“We’re not fans of destroying existing wetland but in cases like this, we put together a really robust plan of mitigation,” said McDiarmid. “I think the conservation easement and the 4 for 1 acreage swap that is part of this eventually will pay dividends for our children and grandchildren down the road.”
In the last 20 years, for Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, EGLE has issued 2,930 permits to people looking to develop wetlands. They’ve only denied 90 permits. While EGLE supervisors say there are many permits not included in those numbers that get withdrawn because there were alternatives to wetland destruction for those projects, it’s clear the number of permit denials is very low.
“Is Michigan doing a good job of protecting wetlands,” asked Catallo.
“I think we are,” said McDiarmid. “A lot of the bad intentions for wetlands in Michigan are headed off, I think, before they reach the permitting process.”
Even though construction is already allowed at Woodland Meadows, the Wayne County Conservation District is trying to appeal the state’s decision to the Environmental Permit Review Commission. Connie Boris fears losing the rare wetland in Van Buren Twp. will make the flooding in Wayne County worse.
“Let’s come to a solution to protect this invaluable, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind last remaining super sponge wetland! It’s a no brainer,” said Boris.
The appeal on this permit won’t be heard until December. Because of that ongoing litigation, Waste Management declined to comment for this story.
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