Where Sierra Stands On Everglades Restoration $

We lie at the headwaters of the Everglades and there has been a lot of news reports on how best to fund the decades-long restoration efforts.

To help you to understand Sierra’s position on this issue, read the following letter our leaders sent to President Joe Biden.

It contains a lot of technical details that may take some time to interpret, but the main message is that what Florida is doing falls short.

February 25, 2022

 President Joe Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

SUBJ: Funding the True Restoration of America’s Everglades

Dear President Biden:

On behalf of the Sierra Club, with 3.8 million members and supporters, we express our gratitude for your recent investment on America’s Everglades. Boosting the Fiscal Year 2022 budget for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with $1.1 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and directing those funds equitably toward Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects across the Greater Everglades, was historic. Several of these projects will appreciably speed up the restoration of water quality and seasonal water flows vital to sustain healthy ecosystems, wildlife biodiversity, drinkable water, and safe recreational access to our waters.

We are also immensely grateful that this FY22 Infrastructure allocation will not fund construction of the inferior, ill-conceived Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir phase added to the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). This reservoir will not provide the level of ecological restoration benefits South Florida needs, but rather has become a go-to project for greenwashing by Governor Ron DeSantis and others looking for a quick political, rather than ecological, fix. The urgent climate and biodiversity crises require bold investments in nature-based solutions, not short-term band-aids for political victories.

All CERP projects are not created equal, and we are especially grateful for your Administration’s prioritization of these projects:

● Two CERP projects that must be completed in order to ensure the success of future CERP projects and overall restoration; both will provide clean water flows and ecological benefits to the Everglades Protection Area’s water conservation areas, Everglades National Park, and the southern estuaries:

○ The next phase of the Broward County Water Preserve Area (BCWPA) project, authorized by Congress almost 8 years ago. BCWPA will help increase the spatial extent of wetlands, reduce seepage water losses, and improve quality of water and vegetation in the Everglades water conservation areas.

○ A new pump station (G-356) will help sustain higher beneficial flows of restored clean water in the southern Everglades by controlling seepage.

● Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP), previously delayed many times over and at risk of being permanently waylaid, will help restore flows and hydroperiods of clean water that are vital to the most biodiverse region of the Greater Everglades. Advancing WERP will also move CERP closer to addressing environmental injustices disproportionately affecting the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, whose way of life is interwoven with this imperiled ecosystem.

 Biscayne Bay Southeastern Everglades Restoration (BBSEER) project is extremely important to restore health to Biscayne Bay and the region that is inarguably one of the most vulnerable in Florida to rising seas, intense storms, and saltwater intrusion.

Also noteworthy, and for which we are enormously relieved and encouraged, is the absence of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir phase in your funding package. This reservoir is a far cry from what we truly need in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) to restore ecologically beneficial clean water flows, sequester carbon, regenerate peat soils, recover native vegetation and wildlife, and adapt to a changing climate. This EAA reservoir is yet another hard-infrastructure project that may mitigate some of the results of an unrestored Everglades, but does not represent true Everglades restoration, and is an incredibly poor replacement for what is truly required–the substantial increase of the spatial extent of wetland habitats that treat and convey clean water from Lake Okeechobee.

The EAA reservoir was conceived and rushed to Congress in 2017-2018, during the Rick Scott and Donald Trump administrations, and since 2019 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has carried on greenwashing the project. Despite what DeSantis, and his supporters claim, the EAA reservoir could not be farther from a “crown jewel” or “heart” of Everglades restoration. The fact is that the planning process was flawed in a myriad of ways which led to a proposed project with significant documented risks and uncertainty on its ecological benefits.

Sierra Club has publicly expressed its concerns about the proposed EAA reservoir project since 2017, including in the attached February 24, 2020 letter sent to US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). We continue to have many of these concerns and questions, but have even more at every turn as the project progresses, some of which are:

● Under the former Governor Scott administration, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) failed to provide a public comment opportunity, and meaningful intergovernmental and independent peer-review, of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before it was submitted in March 2018 to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (ASA). In their draft EIS, which they never released as final, SFWMD failed to evaluate a broader range of potential alternatives that may have provided more ecological benefits and at a lesser long-term cost.

● Per the USACE website, the Corps completed the EAA Section 1308 report (the Validation Report for CEPP EAA) in April 2021. However, neither the 1308 report, nor the Restoration Coordination and Verification (RECOVER) team technical analysis reports, have been made publicly available as required by CERP Programmatic Regulations (33 CFR § 385.20). Without these reports, it is impossible for the public to ascertain whether or not the claimed benefits will actually be attainable. A separate EIS was drafted and finalized by the USACE in May 2020, but it only evaluated the feasibility of the tentatively selected plan the SFWMD proposed in its 2018 draft EIS.

● The never-finalized SFWMD draft EIS, incorporated as an appendix in the draft EIS by USACE, ended up as the basis for the Post Authorization Change Report (PACR) submitted to Congress to modify the prior authorization of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, signed by President Trump, utilized this never-finalized draft to conditionally authorize the EAA reservoir project.

● The SFWMD’s chosen project alternative fails to add significant relief from harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges, beyond what the previously authorized CEPP project was already estimated to provide. While any relief to the estuaries is welcomed, SFWMD chose to not evaluate other project alternatives that may have presented higher benefits to the estuaries. As a result, the public was deprived of the benefit to weigh-in on possible alternatives that may have provided more economically feasibility, with less risk and uncertainty in cost and benefits.

● Because Everglades restoration cannot be successful without large swaths of land south of Lake Okeechobee, it is still in the public interest to evaluate the impacts and feasibility of other less land-restricted alternatives, restrictions that SFWMD chose to impose on itself, based on a flawed interpretation of 2017 Florida Senate Bill 10.

○ The state already owns some of the land required, and only needs to halt its repeated leasing of those parcels as they come up for renewal.

○ In addition, in 2014, 75% of the state’s voters passed a constitutional amendment creating the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF), which in Fiscal Year 2022-23 has over $1 Billion to spend on acquiring and restoring conservation land. The LATF will continue to provide funds through 2034.

● A 23-foot deep reservoir, significantly deeper than Lake Okeechobee, filled with nutrient-polluted water, will promote the same or more profound conditions that fuel intense, frequent, and long-duration Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) within Lake Okeechobee.

● An undersized Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) lacking effective treatment potential for additional water flows from Lake Okeechobee will violate the Miccosukee Tribe’s Water Quality Standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for phosphorus, and fail to deliver on assurances made to the Tribe of an 80% phosphorus load reduction. The 6,500-acre STA proposed for the EAA Reservoir has not been certified as adequate water quality treatment for the flows of new water from Lake Okeechobee.

● No one has answered a very important question: What is the estimated added lift in ecological benefits that this multi-billion dollar, 23-ft deep reservoir project is providing in the modified CEPP project over and above what the previously authorized CEPP project was predicted to provide? When considering a multi-billion dollar project, publicly mischaracterizing claimed benefits points to not only a failure to ensure feasibility, but to potential corruption.

America’s Everglades deserve better. To this end, we respectfully request a re-evaluation of the EAA reservoir project that directly and openly addresses the many valid concerns raised, including the flawed, expedited planning process; the insufficient scientific evaluation of alternatives; the lack of meaningful and equitable public engagement; and the mischaracterization of benefits and risks associated with this multi-billion dollar project. As such, the evaluation process failed to meet the intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). We need your leadership to ensure federal public tax dollars are beneficially, justly, and equitably spent on bold ecosystem restoration projects that are truly responsive to the seriousness and urgency of the climate and biodiversity crises. The abhorrent alternative is to cater to special corporate interests feeding the status quo of unsustainable development, polluting industries and degenerative industrial agriculture.

Again, our most sincere gratitude for the recent historic investment and your Administration’s careful selection of CERP projects that it will support. We look forward to supporting efforts that help restore confidence in the scientific integrity, transparency, and bold vision we desperately need for America’s Everglades.

Sincerely,

Leslie Fields
National Director, Policy Advocacy and Legal Sierra Club
50 F Street NW, Eighth Floor Washington, DC 20001
Leslie.Fields@sierraclub.org

Diana Umpierre
Organizing Representative Sierra Club Everglades Restoration Campaign
diana.umpierre@sierraclub.org

 

FDEP Denies BS Ranch Permit Renewal

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has decided to deny the renewal of an operating permit for the controversial BS Ranch and Farm composting plant near Lakeland.

The plant, located in an industrial park east of Reynolds Road near Saddle Creek, began operating in late 2015 without either a zoning permit from Polk County or an operating permit from FDEP.

The reaction by both jurisdictions was to give the business and after-the-fact permit based on assurances that they were planning to offer a really great recycling service that produces composted soil.

As anyone who has been following this saga knows, things didn’t quite work out that way. The plant’s operations chronically generated foul odors that enraged some of their neighboring business owners and area residents and there were regular questions about groundwater and surface water pollution.

After Polk officials belatedly recognized their folly in rolling over for these guys based on not much more than a public relations tour, they worked for years to somehow overturn or limit the permit that BS Ranch had legally obtained from them. They didn’t get very far.

FDEP, meanwhile, had issued a series of notices about the plant’s problems and finally filed suit against plant’s owners in 2019.

FDEP’s permit denial, which was issued Tuesday, contends that the agency has not received adequate assurances from the plant’s operators that it can comply with regulations involving odor, surface water quality or even the quality of the product the plant is producing for sale.

BS Ranch officials, of course, have a right to appeal. That means this case is likely to drag on for a while longer.

Maybe someone somewhere has learned their lesson about the downside of the permissive zoning and permitting policies that have plagued Polk for years.

It didn’t have to be this way.

 

 

 

Polk Commissioners Green Light Environmental Lands Referendum; Campaign To Convince Polk’s Voters Can Now Crank Up

The result of weeks of lobbying and education paid off Tuesday when the Polk County Commission voted 3-2 to allow a property tax referendum to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot to revive the Polk’s environmental lands acquisition efforts.

Voting to support allowing the voters to weigh in on this issue were Commissioners Martha Santiago, Bill Braswell and Rick Wilson. Commissioners Neil Combee and George Lindsey voted against the idea.

Polk’s Environmental Lands Program has been able to finance the protection of more than 26,000 acres all over Polk County since voters approved the original tax referendum in 1994. Some of the sites—particularly Circle B Bar Reserve—draw visitors from all over the world and have put Polk County on the map when it comes to ecotourism.

This year’s referendum, like the 1994 ballot measure, will ask voters to approve levying a tax of 20 cents per $1,000 of appraised value for 20 years. It is estimated this would cost the average Polk homeowner $30 a year.

Several referendum supporters addressed commissioners before the vote, giving reasons to move forward.

Some of the key arguments were:

–This will build on the foundation that has already begun to protect as much of Polk’s remaining environmentally important lands as possible before it’s too late.

–It will allow the purchase of lands to fill gaps and missing pieces in Polk’s environmental networks of wildlife corridors and other open spaces.

–This will create a legacy that will benefit generations to come.

–It will allow Polk County to leverage state and federal grant programs to stretch the taxpayers’ dollars.

–This is a decision that is critical to the future of Polk County as a great place to live.

In speaking in opposition to the referendum, Commissioner Combee—who actively campaigned against the 1994 referendum—argued that holding a tax referendum at a time of high inflation is unwise.

Although he mentioned the effect of inflation on consumer goods, he didn’t address one of reasons more environmental land acquisition funding is needed.

That is because the cost of buying these properties has increased along with everything else in the economy. That means it is important to be able offer landowners fair market value for their property during a boom period in which many of them also may have received tempting offers from developers and investors.

Add to that the pace of development occurring in Polk County that has already consumed thousands of acres forests, marshes and farm land.

The passage of the referendum will provide some insurance that Polk County residents will have a choice between more of the same and a greener future.

Now that the referendum has been approved to proceed, the real work is just beginning.

Polk Forever, the local group advocating for the passage of the referendum has established a website (polkforever.com) to provide more information, to seek campaign donations to its political committee and to schedule presentations to get the word out to the general public.

Don’t let the opportunity escape us.

 

 

 

Plea For More Environmental Protection In Polk Ends Quickly To Satisfy Developer Demands For New Roads

That didn’t take long.

On March 1 a coalition of Polk County environmentalists presented the Polk County Commission with a request to place a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot for a property tax referendum to renew funding for buying more environmental land before the bulldozers advance and make the issue academic.

This would renew a referendum Polk voters approved in 1994.

It is worth noting that after the voter-approved property tax levy supposedly expired in 2015 commissioners decided to continue to levy it, but to divert most the money to road projects to benefit the development community.

The Polk environmental community, who wanted to avoid the 2015 switcheroo this time around, got the answer to their March 1 appeal this week.

Commissioners reportedly said during a Friday work session–held in a conference room away from most real public access–that they might consider a property tax referendum, but not for environmental protection. Instead, it would be the fourth attempt since 1992 to persuade the public to tax itself to pay for a long list of road projects to advance the dreams of the development community.

The previous ballot proposals in 1992, 1994 and 2014 for sales tax increases went down in flames.

County Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, broached the issue of another sales tax referendum at annual County Commission retreats in 2021 and 2022 to pay for projected road “needs” outlined by county staffers.

His colleagues rejected the idea.

Now—at least tentatively since there has been no formal vote—at least three of the commissioners—Lindsey, Neil Combee (he opposed the approval of the 1994 referendum) and Martha Santiago—are reportedly on board to advance Lindsey’s proposal for another property tax increase instead.

The last major property tax increase commissioners approved was the result of a cleverly orchestrated series of meetings sponsored by a business-sponsored front group called Polk Vision to provide the justification to increase property taxes to make up for a transportation backlog primarily caused by the commission’s decision to approve new developments hand over fist and to not approve impact fees to make the people who benefitted from new developments to pay for the financial impacts instead of sticking taxpayers with the bill.

The latest proposal appears to be another attack on the taxpayers.

To give you some idea of what these “needs” are, let’s list some of them.

One is a plan for a new truck route through the Green Swamp Area of State Concern—including a portion of Colt Creek State Park—to accommodate freight traffic from the logistics centers under construction around the intersection of Interstate 4 and U.S. 27 and other projects farther away. It links into another state road proposal to widen a U.S. 98 on the other side of the Green Swamp for more freight traffic.

Never heard of the Green Swamp? It’s a vital area to protect our water supplies and a key corridor for statewide wildlife movement through a series of natural corridors that the “improved” road system would affect.

Another would extend what was once a local road called Power Line Road east of Haines City to open up more land in eastern Polk to residential and industrial development at your expense. It’s unlikely it would improve your daily commute.

The list goes on.

As Yogi Berra once observed, it ain’t over until it’s over.

The public will have a chance to weigh in on this proposal at the regular County Commission meeting on Tuesday beginning at 9 a.m.

The environmental community will be there. Will you join us if you can?

If not, contact your commissioners and tell them where you stand.

 

 

Want To Drive Electric? Save The Date

If you want to know more about the advantage of electric vehicles, especially in this time of increased fossil fuel prices, read on.

There will be an outreach event at Munn Park in downtown Lakeland from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 23 sponsored by the Clean Energy Committee of the Ancient Island Group of Sierra Club of Florida.

EV owners who would like to share their experiences on the advantages of transitioning to this new, less polluting technology are invited to participate.

For more information, contact Karen Freedman at kfreedman@hotmail.com

Want To Help Expand Environmental Lands In Polk? Here’s How

On Tuesday a coalition of Polk environmentalists asked the County Commission to put a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot to restart the property tax levy to buy or preserve more of the remaining habitat areas to protect rare and listed species and to prevent other species from declining.

Commissioners agreed to consider the request, but it is unknown when or whether they will approve it.

If the County Commission puts the measure on the ballot and the voters approve it, the plan is to buy more land to fill the gaps or to purchase conservation easement from landowners to keep working lands intact as eh bulldozers advance in many parts of Polk County.

So, what can you do to help?

Contact county commissioners to let them know you support this measure.

Commissioner George Lindsey. georgelindsey@polk-county.net

Commissioner Rick Wilson rickwilson@polk-county.net

Commissioner Bill Braswell billbraswell@polk-county.net

Commissioner Martha Santiago marthasantiago@polk-county.net

Commissioner Neil Combee neilcombee@polk-county.net

Schedule a speaker at your club, homeowners association or other local organization. To do that, contact Marian Ryan at (863) 207-5206 or Suzanne Lindsey at (863) 698-5531.

Contribute to Polk Forever, a political committee formed to promote the campaign. Send donations to Polk Forever, P.O. Box 773, Winter Haven 33882-0773.

For more information, go to https://polkforever.com

 

 

Polk Greens Seek New Environmental Lands Referendum

A coalition of local environmental leaders sought approval Tuesday from the Polk County Commission to place a conservation tax referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The referendum, proposed by a group called Polk Forever, seeks to get voter approval to revive the property tax of 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property that was originally approved by Polk County voters in 1994.

With nearly 18,000 people moving to Polk County each year, our water resources and valuable ecosystems are under pressure,” said Suzanne Lindsey, the group’s chair. “Now is the time for us to protect our working lands and unique natural resources that make up this special place we call home.”

Commission Chair Martha Santiago said commissioners need a chance to discuss the request before making a decision. No timeline for that decision was discussed Tuesday.

If the measure is to go on the November ballot, a decision must come by summer, said County Attorney Randy Mink.

If commissioners agree to schedule the referendum and voters approve it, the tax would be levied beginning in 2023 and remain in effect for 20 years. It would bring in an estimated $8.2 million a year.

Under the proposed ordinance implementing the referendum, the proceeds from tax could be spent only for the purchase and management of conservation lands or the purchase of conservation easements to protect working agricultural lands that often are key sections of wildlife corridors.

The tax would cost the average homeowner $30 a year.

The 1994 referendum provided funding to purchase, manage or enable the preservation of more than 25,000 acres of conservation lands at sites stretching from the Green Swamp to the Lake Wales Ridge. The program also helped to fund the development of Polk’s Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve, one of 13 sites purchased by funds from the 1994 referendum that is open to the public.

An estimated 70 percent of the purchase and development costs for those sites was paid for with matching funds from state and regional agencies.

The purposes behind the referendum are:

–To preserve Polk’s remaining wildlands that provide habitat for thousands of species of native plants and animals, including 25 plant species and 18 animal species that are in danger of extinction unless adequate habitat is preserved.

–To connect existing conservation lands to remove gaps that can lead to habitat fragmentation.

–To improve the county’s trail system through and between natural areas.

–To improve access to conservation lands and water bodies.

Key areas that are priorities for the program are:

–The Green Swamp, which contains important aquifer recharge areas, the headwaters of four rivers and the hub for series of statewide wildlife corridors.

–The Lake Wales Ridge, a series of prehistoric islands that contains the largest concentration of rare and endangered species in North America.

–The Upper Kissimmee River Basin, which contains important sections of the headwaters of the Everglades, habitat for uncommon wildlife species and the largest concentration of bald eagles south of Alaska.

–The Upper Peace River, the headwaters of a 100-mile wildlife and recreational corridor.

All land and conservation easement purchases will be from willing sellers.

The County Commission would be responsible for approving all purchases. Their decisions will occur in response to recommendations based on evaluations of each proposed site by a team of technical experts to verify the land meets the program’s criteria

For more information, contact Marian Ryan at (863) 207-5206 or Tom Palmer at (863) 289-4579 or go to the campaign’s website, polkforever.com .