By Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
When federal officials handed off authority over wetlands across Florida to the state, environmentalists worried it would end badly.
Now they know that “ending badly” would be a step up. The program has been in place for a little more than a year, and the impact on Florida’s fragile ecosystems has probably already passed “bad” on its way to “catastrophic.”
As someone who ran on his commitment to improving Florida’s water quality, Gov. Ron DeSantis should see this deal undone.
Certainly he knows the vital role wetlands (which can include swamps, marshes, mangrove stands and cypress domes as well as areas where the ground is sometimes saturated and sometimes dry) play in a state ecology dominated by water. Wetlands are environmental multitaskers: They help filter out impurities in water before it seeps down into the aquifer. They provide habitat to thousands of species of animals and plants. And they help prevent flooding and erosion in an intense storm by acting like natural levees, stopping water’s movement like a seawall without the accompanying damage to sand and soil. That’s a critical benefit in Florida: 41% of the named storms that hit the United States make landfall here.
If DeSantis wants to put it in timely economic terms, when wetlands act as “brakes” to a storm they’re reducing building damage — and thus, cutting the number of insurance claims filed after a storm.
Yet Florida already leads the nation in destruction of wetlands, filling in or draining more than 9 million acres since 1845.
The bottom line: Florida just doesn’t have the resources to protect wetlands. As the Orlando Sentinel’s Jeffrey Schweers reported, federal authorities who had been handling applications for wetland permits were replaced by one “short-staffed, underfunded and untrained unit processing a record number of applications that it cannot keep up with.”
“They’re already doing a messy job and now they’re being pushed to do it faster,” said Tania Galloni, general counsel for Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public interest environmental law group. Last year, Earthjustice sued to stop the transfer of wetlands permitting.
And that’s just the start. In the recent legislative session, Florida adopted SB 2508, a sprawling mess of legislation. It carried a preferential payload: Permission for the state’s big, powerful utilities to fast-track thier permitting, making it much easier for them to destroy wetlands and harder for citizens to object. They pay a fee to use this much-easier process, creating the impression that it’s easy for corporations to buy their way out of protecting the environment we all share.
That bill has yet to make its way to DeSantis. When it does, he should veto it.
He should also urge the state Department of Environmental Protection to give up Trump-era rules that significantly narrow the definition of “wetland,” meaning many legitimate wetlands get no protection. A federal judge struck those rules down, Schweers reported, and Florida is the only state still using them.
Each of these actions is within DeSantis’ power, and together, they could keep Florida’s water cleaner, preserve habitat and give coastal communities protection against erosion and flooding. The determining factor is whether he meant what he said when he vowed water would be his No. 1 priority. And whether he’s willing to take action to stop the destruction of acres and acres of wetlands just to score political points.
This piece was written by the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.