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.

How Did The Environment Fare In Heartland In 2022?

Although there is still a lot of work to do, this past year generally provided good news for environmental issues within the area served by Sierra’s Ancient Islands Group that stretches from DeSoto to Sumter counties.

The two top stories were the approval by Polk County voters of a referendum to restart funding for the Polk County Environmental Lands’ land-acquisition program and Mosaic’s announcement that it was putting plans to expand phosphate mining in DeSoto County on hold.

The environmental lands referendum, which was approved by a larger margin than the original 1994 proposal, will for the first time allow the program to purchase conservation easements from willing sellers. Some landowners reportedly have already inquired about their eligibility.

In Arcadia, Mosaic announced in July that it will delay plans to ask the DeSoto County Commission to reconsider its decision to rezone thousands of acres to allow phosphate mining until at least 2025.

Meanwhile, county commissioners have staged a series of workshops to hear testimony on various aspects on the effects of phosphate mining on land use, water quality, hydrology, wildlife and air quality featuring Mosaic’s presentations that attempt to justify their operations and assure residents the effects will be minimal. Residents remain skeptical since the planned mining operations would involve nearly a fifth of the county’s area.

But there were other highs and lows throughout the year.

The year did not begin well after a Tallahassee judge ruled against Sierra and other plaintiffs attempting to force the Florida Legislature to properly spend money approved in a 2014 constitutional amendment intended to revive the Florida Forever program.

The curious ruling argued the plaintiff’s, who initially took the issue to court in 2015, had waited too long to press their case, ignoring the fact that it was the defendants who have strung out the process and that there was no attempt to make the compensation retroactive but just telling the Tallahassee establishment to go forth and sin no more.

Nevertheless, some state land purchases continue. Over the past year Florida has purchased conservation easements in Hardee and DeSoto counties on ranchlands along Horse and Charlie creeks.

One of the many threats to the environment and rural communities is the construction of new highways farther and farther into the countryside.

There were mixed results on that front in 2022.

In August state transportation officials announced they were shelving—at least for now—a plan to extend the Florida Turnpike through portions of Sumter County.

But in Polk County plans are still under way to advance plans for the eastern leg of the Central Polk Parkway through rural lands on the outskirts of Lake Wales, Haines City and Davenport in an attempt to allegedly relieve congestion on U.S. 27 even though it is unclear whether this will be nothing more than a developer-influenced sprawlway. Worse yet, its northern terminus lies in an already congested section of Interstate 4.

Looking farther ahead, Polk road officials are pushing a plan to realign Deen Still Road through the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern to build a truck route that would also cut through state conservation lands on its way to U.S. 98. There’s no money for this project, though there is a proposal to put yet another sales tax referendum on the 2024 ballot.

There were controversial development projects that arose in 2022 in rural areas.

The most-discussed was the attempt to turn Creek Ranch near Lake Hatchineha into a new residential subdivision and the site for a new high school. As the year ends, the property owner has now pivoted to ask the state to purchase a conservation easement over the property now that the potential cost has been jacked up because of the development proposal.

Meanwhile, Sierra and area property owners have submitted information about other potential school sites and analyzed the school system’s staff flawed analysis that argued for the original site.

The County Commission also in November voted to deny a plan for a private race track on ranchland near the shore of Lake Walkinwater because it was clearly incompatible. Earlier in the year commissioners denied a request for a new subdivision along the Peace Creek Drainage Canal on the outskirts of Bartow because it was too low-lying. That evaluation was further confirmed after Hurricane Ian when a large section of the property was underwater.

Finally, if you live in unincorporated Polk County enjoy curbside recycling while it lasts.

The County Commission has endorsed a staff proposal to end the current system in 2024 with an option of turning the service, which was never well-promoted and whose contamination problems were never seriously addressed, to a private company to which residents could hire at additional costs.

Happy New Year.