Florida Wildlife Corridor Bill Raises Legal, Environmental Issues

The Florida Wildlife Corridor program that highlights the need to protect a still mostly intact network of natural paths for wildlife to get from one of Florida to another if they choose is one of the more ambitious Florida environmental effort in recent times.

The concept had been around for decades, promoted by a number of scientists and environmentalists, but the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition made the idea more tangible by spending months hiking and paddling on the land and recording the results in a series of professional videos.

So it was with great fanfare this year that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that appropriated $300 million to acquire land along the corridor.

But it quickly became clear there were problems or as they say in Tallahassee, devils in the details.

The Tampa Bay Times uncovered the fact that the appropriation, which by the way came from federal stimulus funds rather than funds from the voter-approved source that legislators are still fighting against in court, allows any of the land acquired either through outright purchase or purchase of a conservation easement be used to set up a wetlands mitigation bank.

There were a couple of problems with this.

As Craig Pittman reported in the Florida Phoenix, wetlands mitigation banks in Florida don’t have a very good reputation for restoring wetlands to mitigate for development-related wetlands destruction.. That’s based on his and a colleague’s research that resulted in a book-length expose of the process. To say some wetlands mitigation banks are scams is probably not much of an exaggeration.

Another problem is that the wetlands mitigation industry lobbied for and secured passage of a state law that prohibited wetlands mitigation banks on public lands, which at one time offered viable competition with the side benefit that their projects would actually improve the environmental features for which the public land was purchased.

How this applies to land still in private ownership but with a taxpayer-funded conservation easement on it will be an issue to watch to see if this ends up in court.

Pittman tried to get a comment from Sen. Ben Albritton from Hardee County, the architect of this idea, but wrote he didn’t get a response.

Albritton did tell the Tampa Bay Times that one advantage of some of these mitigation banks in more rural heartland areas he represents is that the mitigation would actually occur in the same drainage basin as the wetlands damage for which the credits are being purchased occurred.

Based on the history of the conduct of wetlands mitigation banks in other parts of the state, it’s too early to celebrate that as an improvement.




Polk Water Cooperative Dissension Gets SWFMD’s Attention

Officials at the Southwest Florida Water Management District are asking questions about just how regional and how cooperative the Polk Regional Water Cooperative really is.

The questions are apt because the agency has a lot of skin in the game. It has agreed to contribute $65 million and counting toward Polk County’s efforts to come up with a unified plan to develop so-called alternate water resources to meet projected public supply demand so the taps keep running and the toilets keep flushing as once-rural Polk’s population nears 1 million residents.

The latest discussion came up during Tuesday’s Governing Board meeting when Swiftmud General Counsel Christopher Tumminia presented staff concerns about whether the cooperative is functioning as it should and whether that funding should continue.

Some of the specific issues were whether the cooperative owns and controls the alternative water supply sites, whether it has the ability to repay the hundreds of millions it plans to borrow to pay for the projects and just exactly who’s still actively involved in participating in the projects.

Swiftmud is not going to fund a project that benefits only one city. Tumminia said, referring to the northwest Polk wellfield that may serve only Lakeland.

Governing Board member John Hall, one of two members from Polk, wondered whether they should invite cooperative board members to a future meeting for further discussion.

Swiftmud Executive Director Brian Armstrong said most of the questions the staff has are technical. Swiftmud officials are scheduled to attend the next PRWC meeting on Aug. 4 to present their concerns.

Polk’s effort has always been motivated by economic development dreams of leaders in some of the 17 cities who initially were involved in the establishment of the cooperative in 2017. The trouble is some, such as Davenport and Haines City, have discussed going it alone to develop their own alternative water supplies. Both cities have annexing like crazy into the former farmland and forests surrounding them and pushing new road projects to open up even more land for development

The message from Swiftmud officials is clear: if they want to do that, they’re on their own.

And just in case you’ve forgotten what this is about. A scientific study completed several years ago concluded the aquifer in this part of Florida is pretty well tapped out when it comes to sustainable withdrawals. That means anyone looking for more water needs to look elsewhere.

That has led to several years of getting permits for projects to tap the lower, poorer-quality reaches of the aquifer. That will require treating the water in a way similar to desalination in coastal areas and disposing of the brine even deeper underground.

There’s also talk of tapping the Peace River during peak flows when there are any—this summer hasn’t produced any so far—and storing water in old phosphate mine pits for later use. There is also talk of trying to get a share of the water that adjacent utilities that are drilling wells in remote areas in adjacent counties hope to obtain.

Proposed Iconic Species Amendment Will Stir Debate

One of the latest proposed constitutional. Amendments to surface for possible inclusion on the 2022 ballot is something called the Florida Iconic Species Protection Amendment.

It is proposed by an organization called the Center for Environmental and Democratic Rights., whose headquarters is in Spokane, Wash. The center works all over the world on issues involving the rights of nature to be protected from pollution, overexploitation and other issues.

It is advertised as a measure that would remove oversight of a number of species from the constitutional jurisdiction of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in order to protect Florida species ranging from red-cockaded woodpeckers to leatherback turtles.

But the heart of the amendment’s language is a single issue—whether Florida black bears can be legally hunted. The amendment, if approved, would permanently ban bear hunting in Florida. None of the other species on this list are game species.

This follows the controversy over bear-hunting in 2015, the first time the species had been legally hunted in Florida since 1993.

The 2015 season was based on a staff recommendation that the Florida bear population had recovered to the point that limited hunting would not seriously affect the population. However, in the background was pressure to allow trophy hunting by people who had never had a chance to hunt for bears and concerns that the hunt resulted in killing female bears and leaving their young to fend for themselves.

There has been no further hunting authorized since then, but it is a year-to-year discussion by FWC’s commissioners.

As the petition process moves forward, it is likely to encounter resistance on principle from hunting groups because of concerns that it could open the door to other hunting restrictions. It also will draw support from animal rights groups and other organizations that oppose hunting.

And, if voters were to approve the amendment, it would be interesting to see what the Florida Legislature would do to thwart it as it has on previous grassroots initiatives.

Stay tuned.




In Midsummer Peace River Flow Lags As Water Supply Aspirations Continue, Reliability Issues Remain Unanswered

Despite the exercised predictions from local television meteorologists, little rain fell in the area so far over the weekend.

Why this is significant isn’t about the vagaries of local weather, but about the continuing efforts to keep the growth machine spinning by tapping peak flow in the Upper Peace River in Polk County.

We’re halfway through this year’s rainy season and river flow in Polk County is about a third of historic average flow at the Bartow gauge. That means so far there isn’t much peak flow this year.

There’s still enough water in the river to launch a canoe, but if you’re looking for water to fill a reservoir, you’re probably out of luck.

That exposes one of the issues in supplying any utility, which is reliability.

Expect to hear more discussion of this issue as so-called alternative water supply planning efforts continue.

The backup plans are to tap deeper, more polluted sections of the Floridan Aquifer and to argue that restoring wetlands will provide the recharge to justify business-as-usual in tapping the better quality sections of the aquifer.

There are competing plans emerging as some cities in eastern Polk that have been annexing aggressively to expand their boundaries into the former agricultural areas of rural Polk want to go it alone in developing allegedly alternative water supplies of their own outside of the joint strategy proposed by the Polk Regional Water Supply Authority.

This is fueled by their development ambitions—subdivisions are sprouting out there like mushrooms after a winter rain—ignoring the fact that residential development costs more than it ever pays in local tax revenue, especially when you do impact fees on the cheap.

The PRWC projects were tentatively funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District under the assumption that the coalition would hold together. That’s less clear now and Swiftmud officials plan to attend the next PRWC meeting on Aug. 4 to discuss this issue.



What If Florida Followed Maine’s Example On Recycling?

Officials in Maine have approved a tough new regulation that forces the companies that manufacture the plastic products that are difficult if not impossible to recycle to pay up to support local recycling programs.

The concept, known as extended producer responsibility charges the companies that produce the waste that local governments are stuck dealing with fees to cover some or all of the costs of local recycling programs.

These programs have been passed in some form in 33 states, the New York Times reports, but most do not deal with the plastic and packaging issues.

How to handle the cost of recycling programs was less of an issue for local governments when China was accepting shipments of plastic waste from all over the world for reprocessing it. When China stopped accepting the waste—and other countries that were possible replacements also began turning down imports they said made their countries into dumping grounds—local officials had to rethink their recycling programs were worth continuing.

Added to the calculation is the fact that the value of recyclables, like all commodities, varies with the market. This is especially true of plastics.

Part of the problem is that the petroleum industry, which is the industry behind the plastic industry, has deluded the public for years about plastic recycling. It was sold as easy, with the recycling logos on bottles and jugs that implied all you had to do was to put it in the right bin.

This was a lie. The fact is the chemical makeup of some plastic containers is so complex that it is unprofitable to try to recycle them.

Another factor affecting the cost of local recycling programs is the lack of education and enforcement of curbside recycling standards, which can result in a high rate of contamination. That means people putting items in their recycling carts that either can no longer be recycled or were never considered recyclable.

If Florida were to pass a law like the one in Maine—and in many European Union countries—it could provide incentives to do more to encourage legitimate recycling efforts and to provide an opening for state officials to require local governments to do more to combat the contamination problem.

The proposal would run into the usual opposition from retailers and manufacturers who typically claim this will raise prices for consumers. However, independent analyses have concluded the effect on product prices is negligible, according to the same New York Times article.



Just How Serious Is Polk On Water Conservation?

The Central Florida Water Initiative, the regional water supply organization that involves three water management districts and all or parts of five counties including Polk has recently been touting water conservation efforts in Polk County as way to avoid the expensive efforts to develop alternative water supplies. In Polk the alternative water supply efforts involve drilling deep into the lower-quality sections of the aquifer and treating the water similar to what occurs at a desalination plant to remove impurities. The plan is to pump the treated water into a pipeline system to be shared by participating cities and to inject the wastes from the process into an even deeper section of the aquifer.

The price tag for this and other projects, such as possible reservoir along the Peace River, will run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Polk County and Winter Haven are involved in pilot projects to test the feasibility to use treated sewage that’s not already committed to other uses such as power plant cooling and lawn irrigation as a possible future source of drinking water.

That brings us back to water conservation.

The main target justifiably is landscape irrigation because that involves the bulk of residential water use.

So far, the main effort involves encouraging voluntary efforts by homeowners. Plant a more sustainable landscape. Have your irrigation system checked out by an expert. Make sure you have a rain sensor connected to your irrigation system. There is some thought of belatedly requiring higher standards for new construction.

Development trends may be taking care of some of the problem in a way. There are more and more subdivisions being proposed that include homes on 40-foot lots, which means they have hardly any yards at all.

Nevertheless, newer homes often come with irrigation systems. An analysis done a few years concluded that newer homes were more likely to be a source of higher water consumption than older homes simply because they had automatic irrigation systems.

That means that at some point utilities will have to be more active in monitoring their customers water use to spot signs of overuse or misuse of water.

I’ve driven regularly by homes where lawn sprinklers are running nearly daily even after ample rainfall.

It seems there is a way to develop a computer program to analyze water use by individual customers to spot problem areas that need either education or, failing that, enforcement.

Business as usual isn’t going to cut it anymore and the sooner utilities educate their customers about that fact, the less demand there will be for expensive projects.



Polk Seeks To Fine BS Ranch $88K For Odors In 2019 Code Case

Polk officials issued a terse press release Wednesday saying county code enforcement officials had decided to fine the controversial BS Ranch & Farm soil manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Lakeland $88,000 for a handful of verified odor problems traced to the business.

This enforcement dates to a 2019 code enforcement case. That case came after four years of problems at the plant, which began operating without proper state and local permits. Wednesday’s announcement apparently doesn’t involve subsequent problems over the past two years.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which initially granted the plant and after-the-fact permit, finally had enough and filed a lawsuit in early 2019 to force the company to comply with the permits and to take action to curb its odor problems.

The reason this case has dragged on was because BS Ranch hired lawyers, who have fought the enforcement efforts and disputed the odor and environmental complaints. In addition because Polk officials naively rushed an initial approval of the plant, the business was able to argue it had some entitlements.

By the way, this saga could go on. BS Ranch has 10 days to appeal the county’s action, the press release said.