Charlotte Commissioners Weigh In On DeSoto Mine Debate

The Charlotte County Commission voted unanimously Jan. 24 to approve a resolution supporting the decision by commissioners in neighboring DeSoto County to deny a permit request by Mosaic to mine phosphate in a large portion of the county that includes areas along Horse Creek, a major Peace River tributary.

DeSoto commissioners took the action in 2018. Mosaic officials may reapply for a permit in the future, but announced in 2022 that they no longer planned for a 2025 resubmittal.

In the meantime, the DeSoto County Commission has scheduled a series of workshops involving various aspects of the effects of phosphate mining. The next session will occur Jan. 31 in Arcadia, when reclamation and radiation will be discussed.

Sierra members have participated in those meetings and have consistently opposed the mining permit and continue to monitor events related to any proposed mining expansion.

In the resolution, Charlotte commissioners said their main concerns were the effects of mining on the Peace River, which supplies drinking water to Charlotte and adjacent counties, and the fact that Mosaic has rejected repeated invitations to appear before the commission to address their concerns.

The resolution also cited the history of pollution discharges to surface waters and the aquifer.

The latest incidents involved stormwater discharges at Mosaic’s Four Corners and South Fort Meade mines in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian last year.

Commissioners also sought support for their position from the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority and its member governments.

Commissioners also requested in the resolution that representatives from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which have regulatory authority over various aspects of mine permitting, attend a public meeting and provide commissioners with an overview of mining regulations and review current regulations to ensure that they adequately safeguard regional water supplies.




Green Swamp Development Proposals Threaten Long-Ago Settlement Decision To Protect Most Sensitive Areas

Within recent months developers have submitted proposals to expand industrial development along Deen Still Road deeper into an area designated as the CORE area of the Green Swamp Area of Critical Concern where development intensity is limited by Polk growth regulations based on a decades-old agreement with state planning officials.

This merits scrutiny because if any of these proposals advance, it could set a troubling precedent.

The threat is especially true given the reduction of state-level growth oversight since the Florida Legislature stripped the state’s former agency that oversaw both compliance with state growth regulations and oversight of protection of the Area of Critical State Concern of much of its powers.

What was formerly called the Florida Department of Community Affairs was renamed the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity under Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. It has been downhill ever since.

To understand why this matters, a short recitation of recent history is appropriate.

In 1996, the Polk County Commission agreed to state-mandated restrictions on how deeply into the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern intense development could occur.

The agreement ended a six-year battle between the County Commission and what was then called the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the state’s Area of Critical State Concern Program.

In 1974 Florida officials designated 295,00 acres—189,000 acres in Polk County and 106,000 acres in Lake County—as an Area of Critical State Concern to protect the headwaters of the Hillsborough, Ocklawaha, Peace and Withlacoochee rivers and a critical section of the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of Central Florida’s drinking water. Since then the area’s importance as a regional hub for a statewide network of wildlife corridors has added to the need to protect it.

The 1974 designation capped efforts to protect the area that dated from the 1950s.

The settlement agreement dealt with development along the U.S. 27 corridor—the ACSC’s eastern boundary—and the decision to create a boundary that separated intense development from conservation areas.

At the time of the designation, the U.S. 27 corridor was primarily farm land.

The settlement occurred in a period when two major events had occurred that changed all of that.

The Florida Legislature approved the state’s first strong growth-management legislation in 1985 that required local governments to approve tougher rules.

Meanwhile, a series of serious freezes in the 1980s wiped out citrus groves in the corridor, which created pressure on many small grove owners to sell their land to developers.

The settlement accommodated those land-use changes on the higher and drier land along the highway.

The reason the issue was not settled until more than a decade after state law changed was that Polk County officials actively resisted state officials’ attempts to rein in growth in the Green Swamp.

That resulted in the nearly continuous strip of residential, commercial and industrial development that exists there today.

The CORE area, which covered 126,800 acres in the more sensitive areas of Green Swamp, allowed only minimal development. It is this area where the industrial land uses have been proposed.

This is a fight we don’t need to fight again.


Polk Agrees To Study Septic Issues In Everglades Headwaters


The Polk County Commission voted unanimously today to approve a $272,243 contract with Dewberry Engineers to conduct a septic-to-sewer evaluation in the portion of the Everglades Headwaters in Polk County.

The study area stretches from Crooked Lake to the Kissimmee River and north to the shore of Lake Hatchineha in eastern Polk County.

This follows the completion of a Watershed Assessment Model by Polk County’s Parks and Natural Systems Division in cooperation with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The study will be conducted in cooperation with Polk County Utilities.

The Polk study was intended to improve data on the source of nutrients—primarily nitrogen and phosphorous–entering the creeks, rivers and lakes in the basin.

Discharges from septic tanks have been identified as one of the major sources of that pollution.

The study will examine what types of measures are feasible to reduce the pollution flow by connecting residences and businesses using septic tanks to central sewer systems and looking at measures that are needed as what is now rural or farmland in the study area is subject to more intense development.

The study is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.




The Right To A Cleaner Environment In Florida Has Been Considered Before; It Did Not Turn Out Well

A group called Florida Right To Clean Water is promoting a proposed constitutional amendment that they hope to place on the 2024 ballot.

The proposed ballot summary reads:

“Prohibits pollution of Florida’s waters by recognizing a right to clean water for all Floridians and Florida waters, including the Everglades, Florida Springs, the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Johns River, the Caloosahatchee River, Biscayne Bay, Tampa Bay, Pensacola Bay and all other waters within the state; provides for local lawmaking to protect clean water, and provides for enforcement and severability.”

Sierra has not taken a position on this proposal.

Interestingly, this is not the first time such a proposal to amend the Florida Constitution has been suggested.

When Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission convened in 1997, then Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia Wetherell suggested that the group consider an environmental bill of rights, according to Clay Henderson’s recently published environmental history.

Whetherell’s proposal included the right to live in an environment free of toxic pollution of manmade chemicals, the right to protect and preserve our pristine natural communities, the right to ensure the existence of the scarce and fragile plant and animal species that share Florida, the right to outdoor recreation and the right to sustained economic success within our natural resources capacity, according to Henderson’s account.

Predictably, by the time the proposal emerged from the other end of the process, it had been reduced a much vaguer declaration stating that “adequate provision shall be made in state law for the conservation of natural resources.”

By that time, of course, there were already a number of provisions in state law intended–at least in theory–to promote natural resource conservation. That was the result of progressive legislation approved in Tallahassee in the early 1970s and strengthened in subsequent years.

But the problem with including conservation provisions in state law is that another crop of legislators can come along later and remove them.

That’s pretty much what happened beginning in the Rick Scott administration and continued to some extent ever since.

Constitutional amendments can be repealed, too, but that requires voter approval. That is a heavier lift than simply allowing some lobbyist’s buddy in the Florida Legislature to do the dirty work.

Whether the current proposed constitutional amendment or some similar measure is the answer and whether it could somehow become torpedo-proof when the Legislature convenes if voters were to approve it is part of the ongoing debate.

However, history does not give us reason to be optimistic.




Latest Florida Environmental History’s Hits And Misses

I just finished reading Clay Henderson’s recently published book titled Forces of Nature A History of Florida Land Conservation.

I didn’t get more than a few pages into this ambitious work by one of the state’s most prominent environmental attorneys when I ran into his description of Florida as the “third-largest state in America.”

That is not the first time I had read or heard this claim. It is wildly inaccurate.

Florida is actually the 22nd largest state in the nation by area (26th largest if you include only land area).

Where it does rank third is in population. That is why Florida, whose area is less than half of Montana, the fourth-largest state in the union (and 43rd most populated), is in trouble environmentally. The threat is the result of both population growth and the decisions in Tallahassee over much of the state’s recent history not to deal very seriously with the issue.

Henderson’s account is the best when he describes in the opening chapters how keen observers of Florida’s environment understood long ago the importance of the connections among various branches of the natural world and in the conclusion when he lays out what needs to be done to save as much as we can, if only politicians can be persuaded to do the right thing.

The rest of the book can be a daunting read at times because the prose lies deep in the weeds of blow-by-blow descriptions of every environmental dispute in which the author has been involved.

If there were ever an important environmental volume that could have benefitted from better editing, this is it.

The problem with the book isn’t just the sometimes over-shared descriptions of environmental disputes and some of the disjointed narrative, but the absence of much recognition of some key battles that occurred in the heartland miles away from the mostly coastal disputes about which he primarily writes.

There is, for instance, no discussion of the decades-long fight to protect the Green Swamp that continues today (by the way, it contains the headwaters of four rivers, not two and the geologist who did important work there was Gerard Parker, not Gerald Parker), no discussion of some key battles over public ownership of inland lakes and rivers (Mobil case, anyone?, only passing mention of the events leading up to and throughout the efforts to restore the Kissimmee River or the effects of phosphate mining on the landscape and the subsequent restoration efforts that belatedly occurred after reclamation became mandatory.

Fortunately, the author included a bibliography listing many books about Florida’s environment that are worth reading that will fill some of those gaps.

In the meantime, this book further confirms Polk County voters’ decision last year to approve funding for more environmental land protection because it’s obvious from this history that if you are waiting for the current regime in Tallahassee to do anything, you may be waiting a long time and it is time we do not have.




Soto Seeks Funding For Kissimmee River Study

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee is seeking funding to start a planned three-year study by the U.S. Department of the Interior of a portion of the Kissimmee River in connection with a proposal to include it on the list of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the United States.

Soto has been quoted as saying the approval of the designation, which still faces a number of hurdles, could protect a portion of the river from development encroachment and could pave the way for further restoration funding.

The Kissimmee River was converted from a wild, winding river system into a drainage ditch in the 1960s in response to flooding in its headwaters in the 1940s.

The project, which was opposed at the time by environmentalists and outdoor recreationists, was later recognized as an environment disaster. It dried up floodplain marshes, causing severe declines in waterfowl and other wetlands-dependent wildlife. The project also eliminated those marshes’ ability to filter pollution flowing toward Lake Okeechobee from, the river’s headwaters in the Orlando-Kissimmee area.

A $1 billion restoration project of a portion of the river’s original channel, which was completed last year, resulted in a rebound in wildlife populations though state and federal officials are still working on legacy pollution issues in the system.

The proposed study would involve a section of the river beginning about 16 miles south of Lake Kissimmee and ending about 15 miles upstream from Lake Okeechobee.

Further Congressional action is pending the completion of the study, which is estimated to cost no more than $500,000, according to backup information accompanying the House bill. Any spending and other actions would require U.S. Senate concurrence.