An interview with Elizabeth Fata Carpenter, Everglades Law Center
As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Elizabeth Fata Carpenter, managing attorney with the Everglades Law Center.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
Can you talk about some of the climate-related changes you’ve seen over the years in your area of Miami-Dade County?
I think that the most obvious thing that comes to everybody’s mind initially is flooding, and we’ve all seen those images of Miami-Dade streets under water. And the octopus in the parking garage I think most of us are familiar with.
Most of those pictures are from Miami Beach, but that’s really an issue all throughout Miami-Dade County, including where I live in the village of El Portal. The village of El Portal is kind of on the northern end of Miami-Dade County, just north of the city of Miami, and in the last few years, we’re definitely seeing an increase in flooding events, an increase in both the severity of those events as well as the frequency.
We’re also seeing a real change in water quality. We’re seeing seagrass die-offs in Biscayne Bay, manatee deaths, and in August of 2020 we added a significant fish kill in the bay as well. So those events are becoming more frequent.
We’re also seeing septic tank failures, which are contributing to the water-quality issues and the flooding problems. And so as a result of all these things that we’re seeing happening around our community, I think that discussions around climate change and resiliency are changing. People are talking about it because they have to be talking about it.
Elizabeth, what are some of the main issues the Everglades Law Center is working on?
We like to keep busy at the Everglades Law Center. Of course, we’re working on Everglades restoration. And for those who aren’t familiar with the Everglades ecosystem, it’s not just Everglades National Park. The Everglades is from basically north of Lake Okeechobee all the way down to the Keys, and so we focus on implementing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, working with local governments and community partners to implement that plan.
We’re 20 years into the plan; it’s the biggest environmental-restoration project in the country and it has 68 individual projects, so we keep our hands busy with that.
We also are involved with the update of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which is referred to as LOSOM. LOSOM is basically the set of regulations that decides when and where water leaving Lake Okeechobee goes, so whether it goes to Miami-Dade County, whether it goes to the Everglades, or whether it gets discharged to the Indian River Lagoon or the Caloosahatchee, which as we know causes all kinds of problems.
And so this work’s really important because it sets the bar for where and when water will move in our state. We’re also working on some water-quality issues, especially focusing on stormwater.
What legal challenges are individuals and communities facing due to climate change and sea-level rise?
Climate change is really bringing a whole new category of legal challenges and legal issues that have never really come up before as we’re dealing with flooding and septic tank failures and things like that. So we’re really working to make sure that this new wave of legal standards that have to be developed properly protect our communities and our environments and are appropriately tailored to the realistic future that we’re experiencing with climate change.
We’re seeing this new wave of legal standards and a lot of different areas. Regulatory environmental laws are having to change to adapt to resiliency and mitigation and stormwater. For example, a big challenge we have with stormwater is that the stormwater requirements for municipalities are not strong enough, even municipalities that are perfectly complying with those are discharging polluted water to the bay and killing the bay.
So we need to strengthen those permits, we need to strengthen our environmental protections, and those are kind of constant battles we’re having.
We’re also seeing issues with preemption. The state of Florida is preempting a lot of local regulatory measures that municipalities are trying to take to protect the environment. The one that people are more familiar with is the plastic straw ban or the plastic bag ban, where the state government said “no, you’re not allowed to ban those things,” but we also have some real concerns about bans that may have further-reaching implications like banning resiliency measures or preempting local governments from passing laws that mitigate our carbon emissions or protect our wetlands.
What can the Florida Legislature do to help?
They can pass stronger environmental laws. To the last point, they can stop preempting local governments from trying to protect their own environments and to protect the interests of their residents.
They can continue and increase funding for resiliency efforts, and now we’re starting to see some funding come out of there, but it’s not enough and it’s not fast enough. We’re trying to react to this after it’s already happened, so we need to get out ahead of that. And the legislature could fund the Everglades so we can move faster and get it restored, you know, now.
All these things are really important and we are getting some funding down but we always need more. The legislature can always help us out with some stronger growth-management policies, and really just generally more bipartisan support for environmental issues. The entire economy of Florida, our lifestyles, everything that we do, depends on the environment.
Our ability to keep living here depends on the environment. The importance of protecting that environment and our ability to live here should not be a partisan issue. So if we could get people a little bit more on board and realize how important these things are, that would be very helpful.
How can Florida residents advocate for conservation and sustainability in their own communities?
I know it sounds a little cliché, but get involved or reach out to your local representatives. And I’ll elaborate on that a little bit because I think that that’s something that you hear a lot, you know, “reach out to representatives,” but sometimes it can feel like you’re not really making a difference or it’s not moving the needle at all.
But in mid-sized and small municipalities, there’s a lot of space for resident involvement—simply looking at what your local village council or city council is doing, look at the agenda for that month’s meeting, and see if there’s anything on there that deals with resiliency or mitigation and go to the meeting and listen to what they have to say and stand up and speak and tell them that those issues are important to you.
It’s about participating in your local community and there really is more space, I think, than most people realize. A lot of municipalities in Miami-Dade County have a task force that deals with sustainability and resiliency and it’s made up of residents in the community, not elected officials.
I’ll use El Portal as an example. Our task force is fantastic and is made up of a number of members whose day jobs have nothing to do with the environment— our architects and teachers. And so these task forces are a great opportunity for people with a lot of diverse perspectives and life experiences to come together and talk about the issues that matter to them and tell their governments what they want to see, rather than having it from the top-down government perspective.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.” He conducted this interview with Ms. Carpenter.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state.