By Richard Baker, Pelican Island Audubon Society
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection wants to take over wetlands permitting from federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Fisheries Service and Environmental Protection Agency.
Under this new plan supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state will take over the longstanding federal program 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 DEP 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, reduce property flooding by absorbing excess rainfall and provide fishing and boating opportunities.
Our wetlands, like the Everglades, support famous wildlife populations that draw tourists to our state. Mangrove wetlands are protective buffers against hurricanes and support 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.
DEP has failed to protect or restore our wetlands and water since Florida Forever monies were drastically reduced.
DEP wants to take over wetlands permitting, and its proposal is incomplete, full of uncertainty, and will create more chaos when chaos is already rampant. Despite former President 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 Indian River County.
In 2003, a former state representative began pushing the county to dredge a shallow sea grass area to the Intracoastal Waterway (an important nursery for our game fish) and build a 5-acre parking lot in critical mangrove-wetland habitat.
Scientists at these federal agencies, who are not subject to local politics, were outstanding in examining all aspects independently. They strongly opposed the Oslo boat ramp expansion.
The Corps of Engineers asked for comments on the project from the community. They looked into these aspects of the project: conservation, economics, aesthetics, 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.
State agencies were ready to approve the project and they got some political help. U.S. Rep. Bill Posey sent his chief of staff from Washington to Vero Beach’s Fish and Wildlife office to support the boat ramp. The agency, which initially was against the project, changed its mind and approved it.
With that strong pressure, it was essential the Army Corps, Marine Fisheries Service and Environmental Protection Agency review the project. That gave time for the community to examine the issues more thoroughly.
Thus, the state DEP 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 tasks. It’s also more susceptible to local or regional pressures from politicians and developers.
Please email the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at 404Assumption-FL@epa.gov by Nov. 2 to reject Florida’s taking on the wetland permitting, a giveaway for developers to build on and remove wetlands, costing all citizens money if free ecosystem services are destroyed.
Richard H. Baker of Sebastian is president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society. He is director emeritus of the University of Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, Vero Beach. Online: PelicanIslandAudubon.org
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.