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Penniman: Putting our wetlands at risk
By Nicholas G. Penniman IV, Guest Columnist
A few weeks ago, SB 1402 and its House companion HB 7043 appeared on the legislative horizon. Since then, these two parallel bills have moved hastily through committees with the backing of powerful lobbies for development and related interests — the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.
Introduced as a priority for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, these bills will further erode the already dismal state of protection for Florida’s remaining wetlands, which function as nature’s kidneys.
While our understanding of the value of natural wetlands has increased exponentially, so has development pressure.
Florida should be doing everything to protect wetlands, but instead these bills would transfer U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) oversight on Section 404 permits under the Clean Water Act (“dredge and fill” permits that allow destruction of wetlands). The bills would take that power away from the ACOE and give it to DEP. This is a bad idea.
Natural wetlands are integral to improving water quality, enhancing flood control and sustaining our wildlife. They perform vital functions to help keep our communities safe. For example, during Hurricane Irma, natural wetlands provided critical storage for heavy rainfall, and mangrove forests took the brunt of the winds and storm surge. Wetlands cleanse water before it reaches the downstream estuaries and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
The proposed transfer of federal responsibilities to the state rests on the notion that Florida has the expertise, intention and capacity to protect wetlands. That is nonsense because DEP has stated that, if given this massive responsibility, it will do so without additional funding for training, new staff or other necessary resources to review federal permit applications.
Further, history proves that time and time again state agencies have prioritized expediency at the cost of wetland ecosystems by crafting loopholes that sidestep requirements to minimize impacts and by truncating the time available for review of the full effect of proposed wetlands destruction.
For example, in 2002 the state permitted a large, man-made drainage ditch as part of a proposed residential development within the Cocohatchee wetland system, which hydrates the Audubon Corkscrew Sanctuary, home to endangered Florida panthers and wood storks. However, the Corps denied the project, citing inappropriate impacts to wetlands.
Though the Corps, the major federal entity responsible for overseeing wetland destruction permits (“404 permits”), has no stellar record on denying bad development projects, federal review has largely produced more positive outcomes than state agencies. The federal system also provides a much-needed “checks and balances” role.
Further, when the Corps makes a permitting decision, additional federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act become part of the decision-making. No specific plan for maintaining these critical laws in the state’s process, should these bills pass, have been identified.
The quest to “streamline” permitting is a clear choice between the public need for wetland protection and development greed. Streamlining of permits that allow for more rapid destruction of our remaining wetlands, which provide ecosystem services, habitat for a diversity of wildlife species, and countless community benefits, is unwise — particularly at a time of rapid growth when Florida needs all of its natural wetlands.
Ask Gov. Rick Scott to oppose this bill. Take action now at the Conservancy’s webpage: www.conservancy.org.
Nicholas G. Penniman IV is a retired publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, former board chair of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the author of “Nature’s Steward: A History of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.”