The Next Great Wetland Challenge: Proposed Airport Expansion to Destroy 54 Acres of Wetlands

The Next Great Wetland Challenge: Proposed Airport Expansion to Destroy 54 Acres of Wetlands

By: Charlie Luthin

The City of West Bend (population ca. 30,000) in Washington County has made plans to greatly expand its municipal airport, arguing that it needs the expansion to create a more “industry-friendly” environment. The proposed expansion would not only extend and widen the existing airport and runways, but would also result in State Highway 33 being expanded from two lanes to four lanes and rerouted to a new alignment. The total project “preferred alternative” would impact 324 acres, including 106 acres of quality habitat identified as an important component of a regional biological corridor, 54 acres of wetlands in the floodplain of the Milwaukee River and another 69 acres in the “floodplain fringe.” A total of 35 acres of additional impervious surface would be added to the landscape with the proposed expansion.

No matter that Milwaukee’s Mitchell airport is less than an hour away. No matter that the City of West Bend does not have adequate funds to maintain its existing airport, let alone a greatly expanded one. Ironically, even though local funds for maintaining the airport are scarce, there are ample federal and state funds available for new construction to serve as an incentive for building a vastly expanded airport and a re-routed state highway. It is further ironic that while West Bend proposes to impact at least 54 acres of Milwaukee River floodplain wetlands, the City of Milwaukee and its Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) a few miles away are actively seeking ways to acquire green space and former wetlands in the Milwaukee River’s watershed to restore in order to alleviate flooding in the City!

In its draft Environmental Assessment (EA), the Department of Transportation suggested that the project will have “no significant impact” on the region’s environment and natural resources. However, a 54-acre wetland fill represents the largest fill of any single construction project since 1991! If this determination of “no impact” is sustained in the final Environmental Assessment, no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is necessary. An EIS is required under our National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for projects of “significance,” and an EIS is a more elaborate and costly process that involves careful studies of the potential impacts. Citizens of West Bend and WWA have argued that an EIS is critical to this project, and we are trying to convince the DOT to require this expanded study. This is also the sentiment of the regional office of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as stated in a recent letter to the project proponents. If the DOT ignores this request, its determination of “no significant impact” could be challenged in a lawsuit.

The Common Council of West Bend recently ignored citizen concerns and adopted a plan to go ahead with the airport expansion and to seek the necessary state and federal funds to pay for it. This seems to be a project that is not going away soon.

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