American Wetlands Month Is A Time To Reflect On A Sometimes Neglected Habitat That’s Worth Protecting

Wetlands are one of the major features of Florida’s landscape.

Before the draglines and the steam shovels that preceded them turned lush landscapes into drained wastelands, wetlands were an even more prominent landscape feature in this state.

Some restoration has occurred since then.

The Kissimmee River marshes are returning. So are parts of the historic Everglades marshes farther south.

The Banana Creek Marsh at Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland was once pumped dry for cattle grazing. It’s now wet again.

Lake Gwyn Park in Wahneta was created after a drainage ditch was filled in and natural water regimes were allowed to return. Lush wetlands followed.

There are smaller examples of less extensive wetlands within subdivisions or at the edges of local parks.

Some are managed for the vegetation and wildlife populations they harbor, providing important microhabitats.

Others are overmanaged, perpetuating the unnatural idea that landscapes should be neat and tidy with no room for wildness. Habitat is not the vocabulary of those sites’ managers.

That approach summons the memory of the Scythians, an ancient tribe that laid waste to everything in its path to deprive pursuing armies of any resources to sustain them.

Habitat needs to be sustainable if it is to have any real value.

This was brought to mind when word reached me that May is American Wetlands Month, an observance created in 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to celebrate the importance of wetlands by educating the public about their features and how to enjoy them.

I’ve been enjoying some local wetlands lately.

Most recently I visited some neighborhood wetlands.

I saw wading birds, marsh birds, marsh rabbits, dragonflies and wildflowers. I saw several species of sedges, the cousins of our grasses. A Brown Pelican, some Wood Ducks and a pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks passed overhead.

Before that I hiked on a berm through a larger regional wetlands.

The wildlife species was even more diverse. I saw more than 25 species of birds during just a short visit.

Black fuzzy Common Gallinule chicks trailed their parents at the water’s edge.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes foraged with their nearly full-grown offspring.

Migratory species are still around.

A startled Sora, a species of rail, suddenly leaped out of the tall grass and settled in just as quickly.

A flock of Bobolinks was still fueling up amid a stand of Barnyard Grass.

An Osprey circled overhead before diving for a fish.

The more time you spend watching wetlands, the more its floral and faunal diversity will become evident.

It should make anyone an advocate for protecting them.

 

 

 

 

 

Polk’s Hypergrowth Ranking Isn’t All Good News

The Lakeland-Winter Haven area’s population has increased more than just about everyplace else in the United States last year, The Ledger reports, citing census data.

Some perspective is probably called for.

The article cited no population figures, but the mathematical reality sides with smaller metropolitan areas in this kind of comparison. Adding 20,000 residents to a metro area with a population of a million will produce a higher growth rate than if it were added to a metro area with 3 million residents.

Nevertheless, significant population growth means that more people will be living and driving closer together. Get used to more traffic congestion in a county that admittedly has a large backlog on supposedly needed road improvement projects and no real plan to pay for them. Impact fees are only doing part of the job. This y ear the Legislature made it harder to guarantee there’s no free lunch when it comes to requiring new residents to pay for the costs of providing the services and infrastructure they demand by limiting impact fees.

Meanwhile, the recurring theme of developer requests recently has been to decrease single-family setbacks just short of duplex density.

That has a cascade effect on things like school capacity, a factor complicated by the fact that school officials are limited to how proactive they can be in buying land for expected needs for new schools. At the same time, they’re competing in the same increasingly overheated real estate market as developers. The school sales tax and impact fees help, but they’re not enough. School. Board members are willing to raise property taxes to pay for this, but legislators have prohibited them from doing something that fiscally responsible.

Well, at least new residents won’t have much of a yard to take care of, which is a good thing related to another growth-related stress point.

That involves something the article didn’t mention, which is the emerging stress on water supplies. Residential lawn irrigation generates a lot of the increased demand. Finding water to quench the demand of the growth machine is now the focus of multi-billion-dollar efforts involving deeper wells, desalination plants and a pipeline network.

Hold onto your wallet for that one.

 

 

 

Second I-4 Wildlife Crossing Project Proposed

When local environmentalists first proposed developing wildlife crossings over or under Interstate 4 to restore lost natural connections along the Peace River and Ocklawaha River corridors through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern, Bill Clinton was president.

Last summer the Florida Department of Transportation unveiled plans for one crossing under the 1960s-era highway at Hilochee Wildlife Management Area east of the County Road 557 interchange north of Lake Alfred, which is currently being reconstructed to accommodate more traffic. It would be an underpass that would be constructed in connection with plans to widen the highway.crossing

Now FDOT officials are proposing a second crossing—this one would be an overpass—connecting to Tenoroc Public Use Area on the outskirts of Lakeland.

The agency will hold a virtual public workshop beginning May 25.

For more information, go to www.swflroads.com/i4/wildlifecrossing .

The Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern is a hub for a series of statewide wildlife corridors that were historically used by wide-ranging species such as Florida panthers and black bears and local species to allow for all native species to maintain their genetic diversity.

The importance and the continued existence of these corridors and the need to protect them while they still exist was highlighted in recent years through the efforts of the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditions.

It is important to implement these projects before it is too late.

Florida Sierra Submits Veto Requests For Anti-Environmental Bills

I am forwarding this message from Florida Sierra about bad bills still pending in Tallahassee. Contact your legislators to keep these bills from passing.


TALLAHASSEE, FL–Today, ahead of sine die, Sierra Club Florida sent an out-of-the-ordinary “veto request” letter to Governor Ron DeSantis.  The fact that the Governor has been signing bills into law at lightning pace led the organization to send the veto request missive even before the end of the legislative session.  Sierra Club’s novel approach comes in light of the unprecedented onslaught of anti-environment and anti-democracy legislation that worked its way through the legislative session.  Sierra Club was struck by the fact that one, or even a handful of vetoes from the Governor would not be enough.  As such, the Governor
will not receive traditional veto requests from the Sierra Club this year.  

 

Instead, Sierra Club sees this legislative session as the ultimate opportunity for the Governor to reveal his true colors.  The letter sent today lists twelve (12) anti-environment/anti-democracy bills that Sierra Club Florida staff, members, and supporters worked assiduously to amend or stop.  The Governor must veto each and every one of these bad bills if he wants to continue proclaiming himself as a pro-environment “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.”

 

Deborah Foote, Acting Florida Chapter Director said:  “Sierra Club is appalled by the Legislature’s unprecedented attack on our state’s natural resources and the transparent, fair processes that Floridians have used to protect the environment and public health in the past.  This then is the ultimate test for Governor DeSantis.  When he addresses this list of bills, he will show himself to be either the enemy of environmental protection and the public process or their champion.”

 

“Floridians recognize the difference between talking a big talk and walking the true walk.  We know the difference between greenwashing and the tangible protection of our environment and our people.  This is a pass/fail test for Governor DeSantis; he has the chance to save the day or continue with business as usual,” stated Steve Wonderly, Florida Chapter Chair.

 

The letter sent to Governor DeSantis is linked here and copied below.

 

Letter:

 

April 30, 2020

 
 

The Honorable Ron DeSantis

Plaza Level, The Capitol

400 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399

 
 

RE:  Remedy the Legislature’s failures 

 

Dear Governor DeSantis:

 

Sierra Club, the oldest, largest environmental advocacy organization in the nation with more than 240,000 members and supporters in Florida, is horrified by the Legislature’s unprecedented attack on both the state’s natural resources and the processes by which those resources can be protected by public participation.

 

You will not get any traditional veto requests from the Sierra Club this year.  

 

We are unable to identify one “worst” bill, or narrow it down to a select few.  The list is as long as your arm, and then some. This makes it impossible for us to follow the normal veto request ritual.  

 

If you are indeed a Teddy Roosevelt Republican as you have claimed, if you actually intend to stand up to Big Sugar, if you care at all about Floridians suffering from environmental damage, threats, and injustice, you will veto each and every one of the bills listed below. 

 

Energy

  • HB 839/SB 856:  Express Preemption of Fuel Retailers and Related Transportation Infrastructure will constrain municipal progress toward clean air and clean energy in the transportation sector. It prohibits local governments from eliminating polluting fossil fuels and leaves our energy future solely in the hands of an unresponsive state legislature.

 

  • HB 919/SB 1128:  Preemption Over Restriction of Utility Services locks in the status quo for fossil fuels and eliminates municipalities’ ability to move toward clean energy in residential and commercial building codes.  Preempting regulation of a subject without providing any new regulation guarantees that nothing will change.  Under this legislation, localities will no longer be able to require electric utility service (increasingly sourced from clean energy) instead of fracked gas for new construction. 

 

The policy choices in this bill deprive consumers of lower cost housing and utility bills.  Bill proponents advocating for “consumer choice” willfully ignore the legitimacy of individuals’ choice to act collectively through their elected officials to address a common threat.  

 

  • SB 896/HB 539:  Renewable Energy attempts to greenwash methane (natural gas) by including it under the heading of “renewable energy.”  Methane, whether created millions of years ago, or in the past decade, is the second biggest contributor to climate change after CO2.  Incentivizing its production by permitting cost recovery for the higher cost of “renewable” natural gas gouges consumers and will lead to increased fugitive emissions from landfills and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

 

Section 1 of SB 896 provides that “solar facilities” are a permitted use in all comprehensive plan agricultural land use categories and in agricultural zoning in unincorporated areas does an end-run around local comprehensive plans and their provisions designed to protect local communities and to achieve the best use of the jurisdiction’s lands.  It eliminates local input and control over industrial power plant siting.  Further, automatically permitting these industrial scale power production installations (with no limit on their size) deprives local governments of their ability to point out inconsistencies with their comprehensive plan under the Power Plant Siting Act.  Agricultural producers who know the importance of using land properly, and who work and pay taxes, deserve better than to be sacrificed to electric utilities’ desire for a monopoly on solar energy.

 

Water

  • SB 2516:  Water Storage North of Lake Okeechobee will inappropriately use $50 million annually from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to purchase pumps and pipes for aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells on the north side of Lake Okeechobee instead of acquiring floodplains for water storage, treatment, and conveyance south.  ASRs are not true ecosystem restoration but rather only be a short-term water supply tactic; increasing sea level rise and the accompanying increase in total dissolved solids will require expensive reverse osmosis or similar measures to maintain even the ability to use the water for irrigation.  ASR wells will not be able to pump water below the ground quickly enough during intense storm events to adequately diminish discharges to the east and west estuaries.  ASRs would be a misappropriation of taxpayer dollars and kick the can down the road to delay the wetland restoration that is the only remedy that can accomplish Lake Okeechobee discharge reduction and water treatment and conveyance to actually restore the Everglades and Florida Bay.  

 

  • SB 64/HB 263:  Reclaimed Water continues the unwise practice of injecting treated wastewater into an aquifer for eventual potable use (see lines 90-93).  There are millions of chemicals in the literature  and we test for only about 300 of them.  We are inventing and using new chemicals all the time, and many find their way into the wastewater stream. These include contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) such as endocrine disruptors, nanoplastics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and the metabolites of licit and illicit drugs.

 

Our drinking water standards and testing/purification regime (membrane filtration, ultraviolet/ozone, and chlorine disinfection) is effective for controlling microbial contamination, but is inadequate for dealing with CECs which may have long-term chronic or cumulative effects.  CECs injected into a drinking water aquifer for a decade or more will be just about impossible to remove if significant public health threats are identified. Public water systems may be able to institute an aggressive response (at great expense); private wells will not. 

 

We do not oppose injection wholesale. Using it to buffer against salt water intrusion, where the buffer will not be for potable use, for example, is acceptable.  But the risk posed by injection into the drinking water aquifer is unacceptable.

 

  • SB 426/HB 267: State Preemption of Seaport Regulations neutralizes the recent Key West ballot measures to protect the environment on which the city’s economy depends by limiting the use of their port to ships that have fewer than 1500 disembarkations, have the best safety and environmental records, and have no more than 1300-person capacity.  By overturning the solid majority of Key West voters who supported the limits, Florida’s legislature has shown contempt for the democratic process and endangered North America’s only living coral barrier reef.

 

Land

  • SB 487/HB 1274:  Growth Management increases by 500% the acreage threshold that qualifies as a “small scale comprehensive plan amendment.”  Amendments of 50 acres or 100 acres in rural areas would now qualify as “small scale.”  This kind of amendment requires only a single hearing by the local governing board; no review by DEO or any other agency is needed.  This statutory change follows on SB 1494 (2019) which eliminated the cumulative 120-acre cap for small scale amendments. While small scale amendments are not supposed to include text changes to the plan, they do involve text changes related to the Future Land Use Map.  With this larger acreage qualifying for small scale amendments, potential major changes will occur in multiple 50 and 100 acre amendments with no state oversight.

 

  • SB 1876/HB 421 and HB 1101:  Relief from Burdens on Real Property inserts subsurface rights and mineral estates into the definition of “real property.”  This inclusion will give an oil or gas developer a legal wedge to force a locality or the Department of Environmental Protection to refrain from actions that would “inordinately burden” the developer’s property by preventing fracking or other oil or gas exploration and production.

 

For local governments, this could include their objection to issuance of a permit for drilling within three miles of their corporate limits under 377.24 (6) F.S. 

 

If the oil/gas industry is denied a permit to drill, they will, pursuant to 70.001 (4)(a) F.S., be able to submit with their claim an appraisal of the value of oil or gas thousands of feet below the ground that “demonstrates the loss in fair market to the real property.” This threat would potentially put millions of tax dollars at risk and will force localities to risk either bankruptcy or the impacts of drilling on drinking water supplies, public health, and climate change and sea level rise.

 

Air

  • SB 88/HB 1601: Farming Operations is clearly biased in favor of “farm operations” and against any party that may be injured by them who seeks justice at court.  The bill is designed to gut the class action suit against Big Sugar for harms to western Palm Beach County residents caused by smoke and ash from the outdated practice of pre-harvest sugar field burning eight months each year by changing the state laws on which that case will be decided.  The bill:
    • limits standing to sue to those within half a mile of the burning despite the fact that smoke plumes extend more than 26 miles
    • limits any damages to the amount a plaintiff’s property value is diminished despite there being absolutely no nexus between property value and the health impacts of and medical costs for asthma and COPD
    • restrains the court from holding a farm liable unless the plaintiff proves (using a higher than usual standard of proof for civil cases) that the farm did not comply with state or federal laws or best management practices – when there may be no laws involved (civil cases are about harms suffered by individuals while criminal cases involving laws are about harms suffered by the state)
    • prohibits punitive damages unless the plaintiff can show the defendant was guilty of the same conduct within three years of the conduct that spurred the suit
    • provides that the plaintiff has to pay fees, costs, and expenses if they lose (a provision calculated to chill any appetite for suing Big Sugar)

 

Democracy

  • SB 90/HB 7041:  Election Administration increases the size of the no solicitation zone from 100 to 150 feet and provides that nothing may be given to those in the zone, including water, food, or a chair except by election staff.  Since low income and minority neighborhoods are often subject to longer waits to vote than other areas, this provision is cruel – especially since the election staff has other things to do besides bringing water or snacks to voters.  

 

The bill reduces access to drop boxes and imposes new costs on election operations.  It limits the ability of volunteers to collect ballots from the ill and infirm to deliver them to drop boxes or to voting locations.  It reduces the duration of vote-by-mail requests and imposes new signature confirmation requirements.

 

  • SB 61/HB 1238:  Percentage of Elector Votes Required to Approve Constitutional Amendment or Revision would increase the required majority from three fifths (60%) to two thirds (66 2/3%).  It would also limit the majority required to repeal a constitutional amendment to the majority that was required to adopt it thereby making it even more difficult to adopt constitutional amendments while making it easier to repeal those already adopted.

 

  • SB 699/HB 1890:  Campaign Financing would limit contributions to a political committee formed to sponsor a citizen initiative to amend the state Constitution to $3,000.  The cap on contributions would be lifted on the day the Secretary of State determines that sufficient signatures from at least half the congressional districts in Florida have been collected and the initiative is given a ballot position.  

 

Sponsoring a citizen’s initiative under this bill would mean gathering 885,397 signed petitions in at least 14 congressional districts in a period of a year and a day (2,236/day) with no contributions over $3,000.00 and no ability to collect major contributions to fund petition gatherers or an ad campaign to advertise the initiative until all the necessary signatures are collected.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has concluded that the circulation of initiative petitions represents core political speech and merits the highest level of protection.  Campaigns run on money; starving the initiative campaign of money means an issue will die because there isn’t enough money to pay for fast and broad petition circulation rather than because it is a bad idea.  

 

Since we are still days away from sine die, we hope that some of the above may not actually make it to your desk but some already have; as such, we send this out-of-the-ordinary veto request in advance of the session’s adjournment to ensure that you receive our message before you sign even one more damaging bill.

 

By vetoing one or only a few of the bills on the list, you may correct one or more legislative transgressions, but limited action will not afford you the right to call yourself a “green” governor.  Floridians will recognize the difference between greenwashing and the actual protection of Florida’s environment and its people. 

 

A true environmental champion will recognize the opportunity before him, and will use his power to veto each and every one of these bad bills.

 

The Legislature has forsaken Florida’s environment, its people, and what should be inviolate: American principles of democracy.  It is up to you, Governor DeSantis, to remedy the Legislature’s failures.

 

Sincerely,

 

Steve Wonderly

Chair

Sierra Club Florida

Steve.Wonderly@Florida.SierraClub.org 

Panther Point Trail Fully Open

The nine-mile Panther Point Trail, which runs along the eastern and southern shores of Lake Hancock, is fully open.

A formal opening event will occur at some point, but we can use it now.

The trail connects the Marshall Hampton Reserve near the intersection of Thornhill Road and Winter Lake Road with the Fort Fraser Trail, which runs along an abandoned rail line between Lakeland and Bartow.

The trail offers scenic views of Polk’s third-largest lake at the headwaters of the Peace River and wildlife viewing.

Parts of the trail run along former phosphate dikes and other parts wind along a series of lakefront berms through wooded areas.

The trail’s name is a nod to a former popular birdwatching spot dating from the 1960s.

Another feature of the trail is a historical marker noting Zachary Taylor’s route across this part of Florida in the 19th century.

The trail is open only for day use and the gate at Saddle Creek closes automatically at 8 p.m.

 

Toilet To Tap Bill May Not Affect This Part of Florida

Legislators are considering bills that will allow treated sewage to be used more widely, including as a source of drinking water.

However, it doesn’t look as though drinking water in this part of Florida will come from other sources.

That’s because the treated sewage in DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Polk and Sumter is already being used for other purposes, primarily irrigation and power plant cooling water.

In other parts of the state, the change will be more dramatic.

In south Florida counties, where sewage is still discharged into the Atlantic Ocean. That practice is supposed to end in 2025.

Elsewhere, inland surface discharges that haven’t already been diverted will have to end and utilities will have to pursue reclaimed water infrastructure.

According to a legislative staff analysis there are approximately 2,000 domestic sewer plants in Florida and 476 already have some kind of system for using what is now referred to as reclaimed water.

The big challenge will be how to afford the conversion costs. Some state funding will be available, but some of the cost will likely have to be incorporated in rate structures just as well-run utilities already set aside funds for repairs and replacement costs.

Polk Commission Oks Peace River Restoration Study

County commissioners agreed today to spend $106,271 to hire a consultant to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of restoration projects along the section of the Peace River in Polk County.

A final report on the study is scheduled to be completed by November.

The study, which will be undertaken by Kisinger Camp & Associates, will look at habitat, soils, wildlife, water quality and other features along the river. The 154-square-mile study area has been heavily impacted by urban development, phosphate mining and farming operations over the past 150 years

This is the first of three proposed study phases.

Subsequent phases will involve further analyses of top-ranked restoration projects and the design and permitting of any restoration projects that are selected.

The effort will involve examining potential expansion of recreational opportunities along this scenic waterway.

Three public boat ramps and a riverside boardwalk park already exist. Efforts are under way to establish wayfinding markers to encourage paddling on this section of the river.