Florida’s Iconic Wetlands Face a New Threat

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
November 2020

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) wants to take over wetlands permitting from federal agencies U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, (USFWS), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Under this new plan, supported by Gov. DeSantis, the state will take over the longstanding federal program by USACOE that for decades has protected marshes, cypress forests, ponds, and other wetlands under the Clean Water Act. This plan fast-tracks development permits for powerful special interests that want to exploit Florida’s wetlands for profit, degrade and ruin our natural landscapes, and affect our wildlife. Unfortunately, our state’s FDEP has been weakened by recent Florida legislative and administrative actions, leading to poor enforcement of Florida’s environmental laws.  Handing over federal responsibilities to the state leads to a less thorough review process and greater wetlands loss.  

Florida has the largest wetland ecosystem in the lower 48 States.  Our wetlands provide free “ecosystem services,” critical to our economy. Wetlands supply and clean drinking water, protect property flooding by absorbing excess rainfall, and provide fishing and boating opportunities. Our wetlands, like the Everglades, support our famous wildlife populations that draw tourists worldwide to our beautiful state. Mangrove wetlands are protective buffers against hurricanes and support our coastal fisheries. Wetlands treat our agricultural and stormwater runoff, stripping away nutrients that fuel toxic algae blooms.  These free services contribute billions of dollars to our economy. FDEP has failed to protect or restore our wetlands and water since Florida Forever monies were drastically reduced.

FDEP wants to take over wetlands permitting, and its proposal is incomplete, full of uncertainty, and will create more chaos in our state when chaos is already rampant. Despite George H. W. Bush’s pledge of “no net loss of wetlands,” Florida has lost huge wetlands acreage to development. Florida’s wetlands depend on federal protections and resources.

Having federal agencies review projects is essential. They were critically important in reviewing the Oslo Boat ramp dredging issue.  In 2003, a former Florida Representative began pushing the county to dredge a shallow seagrass area to the intercoastal waterway (an important nursery for our game fish) and build a 5-acre parking lot in critical mangrove-wetland habitat so his boat trailer business could expand. Scientists at these federal agencies (not subject to local politics) were outstanding examining all aspects independently.  Consequently, they strongly opposed the Oslo Boat ramp.  USACOE asked for comments on the project from the community.  They looked into these aspects of the project: Conservation, Economics, Esthetics, Environmental, Wetlands, Historical (cultural) properties, Fish and wildlife values, Land use, Navigation, Recreation, Water quality, Safety, Considerations of property ownership, and the needs and welfare of the people.  This is something our state agencies do not have the staff to do.

The state agencies were ready to approve the project. Yet having the Feds opposed to a project can influence political action. US Representative Posey sent his chief of staff from Washington to Vero Beach’s USFWS office to threaten a loss of some of their funding if they opposed the boat ramp. Within 24 hours, the USFWS, which initially were against the project, changed their mind and approved the project.  With that strong pressure, it was essential USACOE, USFWS, NMFS, and USEPA review the project, as it gave time for our community to examine the issues more thoroughly.  Thus, the state FDEP should not be given full responsibility for reviewing wetland projects because it’s important for other agencies to provide environmental input. FDEP does not have the fiscal or personnel resources to take on these needed tasks. It’s also more susceptible to local or regional pressures from politicians and developers.

Please email the US EPA 404Assumption-FL@epa.gov to reject Florida’s taking on the wetland permitting, a giveaway for developers to build on and remove our wetlands costing all citizens more money if free ecosystem services are destroyed.

A version of this article was printed by TCPALM.com on October 28, 2020 with photographs. Click to read the TCPalm version.

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