Two Cheers For Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Environmental Budget Proposals

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently rolled out a gushing press release on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed environmental budget for various state land and water-related programs.

Some of it is good as far as it goes, but it simply doesn’t go far enough.

The most glaring gap was DeSantis’ proposal to spend a mere $50 million for the Florida Forever program. That is half what was in last year’s proposed budget, It is still only a fraction of the $300 million the program should get by rights under a constitutional amendment and would have if it were not for the obstructionism and antagonism of DeSantis and his allies in the Florida Legislature.

Some of the funds touted, such as $40 million to fund development of alternative water supplies, is aimed at efforts to keep the growth machine going in the face of the facts that unsustainable growth has caused overexploitation of the state’s natural resources.

There is money for continued work on Everglades restoration, some money for springs protection and combatting harmful algae blooms, which is all to the good.

There is also now $180 million proposed to deal with sea level rise as state officials finally begin to take the resiliency issue seriously, but there’s also money to deal with the errors of past coastal development policies. The most notable expenditure in this category is $30 million for beach renourishment.

Finally, there is $145 million for dealing with water pollution, though how effective that will be unless it is coupled with stronger pollution source reduction regulations and enforcement of those regulations remains to be seen.

FDEP officials sent out a follow-up press release that included quotes from various organizations praising the budget.

It is worth noting that Florida Sierra and a number of other state environmental organizations were not among them.






Winter Haven Seeks State $ To Fix Lake Conine, Fund Septic Conversion

Winter Haven officials recently asked the Polk Legislative Delegation for state funds to fix lake pollution problems around the city, the Winter Haven Sun reports.

The focus is on Lake Conine in the city’s northeast area.

A project is already under way to create a wetlands treatment area off Lucerne Park Road.

The article cites problems with stormwater runoff and septic tank discharges, but did not mention the legacy pollution from a city sewer plant that discharged pollutants into the lake for many years, making it one of the more polluted lakes in the city. Sewer discharges also affected water quality in Lake Lulu at the headwaters of the canal system that discharges into a series of canals that flow into the Peace Creek Drainage Canal and ultimately the Peace River.

Septic-to-sewer conversions are expensive because of the high cost to homeowners to make the change. In addition to the cost of connecting to the city sewer system, state regulations also require homeowners to deactivate their septic tanks, an effort that can cost as much as $10,000. There have been proposals to come up with a loan program that will allow residents to take out loans to cover the costs and repay the costs over a period of time through assessments on their utility bills.

One of the issues being discussed is to make sure there is full disclosure to residents regarding the full cost to prevent financial hardships.

Everglades Headwaters Highway Project Re-Emerges; Public Meeting Planned

A plan to build a road through wild areas south of Lake Tohopekaliga between Poinciana and the Florida Turnpike has received new life.

The Central Florida Expressway Authority, which is involved in planning road projects in Orange, Osceola, Lake, Seminole and Brevard counties, is in the early stages of studying potential routes. Most of the routes are overland on what is now ranch land north of Disney Wilderness Preserve but which has been proposed for development in something called the South Lake Tohopekaliga Master Plan. There has also been a suggestion to re-examine an earlier proposal to bridge a section of the lake.

The justification for the new road mimics typical arguments for all such projects: regional connectivity, emergency evacuation and congestion relief. There is traffic congestion in Poinciana, though it is primarily the result of local traffic in this sprawling unincorporated community that was planned and approved for development before stricter modern growth-management regulations took effect.

The idea of building a connector road from northeast Polk County to other highways to reach the Atlantic coast has been around for decades as an economic development scheme.

Expressway officials have met with environmental groups including the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, who have raised issues on listed species protection, wildlife crossings, preservation of wildlife corridors and smokesheds, which are areas affected by periodic prescribed fire management.

A public meeting will be scheduled sometime later this year, project officials told the Polk County Commission at a recent briefing.

If the study concludes the project is feasible, construction could begin by the end of the decade.


Lake Hancock Trail System Expansion Will Be Topic Of Meeting Jan. 23

County park officials will make a brief presentation from 2:30 to 3 p.m. next Saturday at a public meeting at the large picnic pavilion at Circle B Bar Reserve.

The trail system at Circle B connects to the Fort Fraser Trail, which runs along an abandoned rail corridor between Bartow and the outskirts of Lakeland.

The County Commission recently accepted the donation of easements to extend the trail system westward on land south of Edgewood Drive to connect to Lakeland Highlands Road . That extension, which has to be engineering and constructed before it becomes a functional link, will provide a connection to Lakeland’s system of bicycle and pedestrian trails.

Meanwhile, the Panther Point Trail, which begins at the Marshall Hampton Reserve across Lake Hancock from Circle B and runs along the lake’s eastern shore, will eventually be expanded to connect to the Fort Fraser Trail just north of Bartow via property managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Swiftmud officials have installed locks on the southern end of the current trail to prevent trail users from accessing the extended trail system until it is officially open.

One pending issue causing the delay in opening the final leg of the trail, according to Polk County officials, is the expected need to install a security fence around the equipment atop the structure that controls water flow from Lake Hancock via Saddle Creek to the Peace River.

Farther in the future there has been discussion of creating some kind of boardwalk or trail system though the swamp bordering the northern shore of Lake Hancock to connect Marshall Hampton Reserve and Circle B.

Circle B Bar Reserve is located at 4399 Winter Lake Road, Lakeland.

BS Ranch Delusion Gets Statewide Exposure; Changes Planned

The saga of the so-called soil processing plant called BS Ranch in the Lakeland suburbs about which Sierra and other local environmental advocates have been complaining for years is getting some wider attention.

Today the issue was highlighted by Craig Pittman in Florida Phoenix, an on-line journalistic effort to highlight what’s wrong with Florida’s approach to a number of issues.

As previously noted here, the plant was approved by state and local officials based on a misleading public relations effort—most of the permits were actually approved after the fact—under the guise of providing a few jobs and supporting business interests.

County Commissioner George Lindsey recently termed his vote to approve a zoning permit for this environmental disaster the one vote he regrets.

The back story of this project was an attempt by companies that hauled wastes from septic tanks and sewer plants which have to go somewhere to places where they could be handled without dealing with environmental fines from the state and odor complaints from neighbors in rural areas.

It didn’t work out that way.

The odor complaints came from suburban residents and motorists on the nearby Polk Parkway, a local toll road constructed to speed intra-county commuting and all kinds of development, and even the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, whose initials DEP were often used to signify “Don’t Expect Protection” under the pro-development and accommodation regimes in Tallahassee, finally stepped in and sued to require BS Ranch to fix its problem.

The fixes are still in process even though other Florida counties with less permissive philosophies had already required tougher regulations.

Meanwhile, the destination for the sewage wastes that were to go to BS Ranch will supposedly end up somewhere better, according to some preliminary planning being discussed by county officials.

The plan instead is to haul these wastes to county sewer plants, where a treatment facility will be constructed to handle these wastes at a cost of several millions of dollars.

Some of this is in anticipation of complying with coming state regulations that restrict where sewage waste can be dumped and some will involve a discussion that has occurred over the past decade or so about dealing with residents’ complaints about the current disposal methods.

This change is still at least a couple of years out and how this will affect what sewer customers and septic tank owners pay for services has not been specifically addressed, but it may involve some fuller cost accounting.

Stay tuned.



Green Energy Expansion Plans, Rural Communities Collide In Polk

Sierra Club supports the expansion of solar and other renewable forms of energy, but it seems the expansion plans by investor-owned utilities into rural areas have hit a snag related to rural environmental justice.

Today the Polk County Planning Commission voted to deny a plan by Tampa Electric to expand its existing solar farms in and around Chicora, a community in southwest Polk established in 1885 and still inhabited by descendants of the original settlers. Residents say they are working to get approval of the community’s designation as a historic district in hopes of gaining further protection from encroachment.

TECO and other utilities and private entrepreneurs have been active in expanding solar power in rural areas in Polk and adjacent counties for the past several years.

But this raises a sometimes overlooked aspect of the rural environmental justice debate over issues such as esthetics and quality of life rather than pollution, odor or noise complaints.

Specific issues include security fences that residents say make them think they’re surrounded by a prison camp. The fences also may hinder wildlife movement, they alleged. Others complained flashing lights interfere with their sleep. Overall, residents say they feel these facilities are being located too close to their rural homesteads without fully taking into account the effects on their daily lives.

The final decision will likely be made by the County Commission, which ruled in an earlier case in the same area that TECO was encroaching too far into Chicora and needed to scale back its plans.

Southwest Polk County, much of which was mined for phosphate beginning in the late 19th century has a long history of being chosen for controversial projects, such as power plants, that were opposed in more urban coastal areas. The arrival of the plants stressed on local water supplies. This area was also the proposed site for an ultimately rejected plan for the state’s first hazardous-waste incinerator near another rural community.

This is an issue that deserves more discussion.




Trail Extension, More Solar Power Expansion Coming To Polk

It is nice to see some good environmental news these days.

Today the Polk County Commission approved a deal with Sanlan RV & Golf Resorts and Orlando Health to secure a 40-foot wide corridor south of the Polk Parkway between U.S. 98 and Lakeland Highlands Road to eventually connect the Fort Fraser Trail and Lakeland’s system of pedestrian and bicycle trails.

No date was announced for construction, which will depend on further engineering and design work, County Manager Bill Beasley told commissioners.

The connection of the two trail systems has been discussed for several years to expand recreational facilities in this growing urban area of the county. One of the key issues has involved how to get under or around the toll road, which in the past has been a formidable physical barrier to connecting the trails.

Meanwhile, the Polk County Planning Commission will consider a proposal on Wednesday to expand solar power facilities in the Chicora area south of Mulberry as part of a series of projects mostly initiated by Tampa Electric to develop more solar within its service area. Another TECO solar project is planned west of Mulberry near the Polk-Hillsborough line.