Water-Related News

Florida lawmakers push water agenda

WASHINGTON – Fully upgrading the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee could be done three years ahead of schedule if Congress appropriated the full amount this year to complete the project, a senior U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official told a gathering of congressional lawmakers from Florida Wednesday (Feb. 15th).

“If we were able to maximize funding, we think we could move the timetable up to 2022 (from 2025),” Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, the agency’s deputy district commander for South Florida, told the group. “There are some constraints with being able to work on components of the dike at the same time, so we don’t think it’s feasible to speed it up any faster than (that).”

But convincing Congress to pony up the $800 million for the dike — not to mention funds for dozens of other Everglades-related projects — won’t be easy considering the limited resources and competing interests on Capitol Hill, said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Weston.

“We should all maintain a constant worry that the patience of our colleagues who have very major water projects of their own (around the nation) in the queue and the number of years that this project was expected to take — and is taking — has a tendency to wear thin not only on the staff that makes recommendations on funding these projects but on our colleagues.”

The bipartisan Florida congressional delegation met to discuss the state’s significant water woes, which range from last summer’s toxic algae blooms along the Atlantic coast that were visible from space, nutrient-addled shorelines in Southwest Florida that have wreaked economic devastation, and red tides that led to massive fish kills near Sarasota.

Much of Wednesday’s meeting focused on speeding up and funding the massive, multibillion-dollar project to rehabilitate the Everglades.

Florida lawmakers in DC learn there are no easy fixes for red tide plague

Red tide has become a vexing issue for many residents of Sarasota and Manatee counties over the past year, but lawmakers from Florida’s 29-member congressional delegation learned Wednesday that the natural phenomenon is hard to stop.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, the co-chairman of the state’s delegation, which met as a group for the first time this year Wednesday, opened up the line of questioning by asking what was the best course of action that the federal government could take to fight red tide and its potential impact both on the coastline and state’s tourism industry.

One big problem with red tide is the damage it inflicts on tourism and seafood industries. NOAA estimates that $82 million a year in economic loss in the United States can be attributed to toxic algal blooms, which includes red tide.

A few methods of reducing red tide were brought up during the meeting, including disrupting stagnant fresh waterways, which algal blooms thrive in, said Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Teen divers invited to join new SCUBAnauts International Sarasota Chapter

Mote Marine Laboratory is excited to announce it will host the first-ever Sarasota area chapter of SCUBAnauts International, which guides young men and women, ages 12 through 18, along an exciting pathway for personal development by involving them in the marine sciences through underwater marine research activities such as special environmental and undersea conservation projects that build character, promote active citizenship and develop effective leadership skills.

The new chapter will join three existing chapters (St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs and Tampa) and will be lead by the teen members and their parents. Mote’s Coral Health & Disease Research Program Manager Dr. Erinn Muller will serve as the chapter’s Science Advisor and Mote Aquarium Biologist Heather Hooper will serve as the chapter’s Dive Master and Safety Officer.

Interested teens in the greater Sarasota-Bradenton area and at least one of their parents are invited to attend an orientation meeting at Mote starting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The meeting will be located in Mote’s Buchanan conference room located on the third floor (1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL).

If you’re interested in joining the Sarasota chapter, but can’t make the meeting, please fill out this Google Form. Within the form, please indicate whether you're attending the March 1 meeting.

Long slog likely if Trump EPA attempts WOTUS do-over

President Trump's pick to lead U.S. EPA, Scott Pruitt, is an avowed foe of the agency's Clean Water Rule.

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the Obama administration over what he deemed an unlawful expansion of federal regulatory power over isolated streams and wetlands. And if he's confirmed as EPA chief, he has said he will replace the rule.

But legal experts say killing that rule is one thing, replacing it another.

The regulation — which is also known by an acronym, WOTUS, for "Waters of the United States" — was written by the Obama EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to help regulators and landowners end a murky, decadeslong legal battle over the reach of the Clean Water Act.

At issue: unclear case law and a vaguely written statute.

Bernadette Rappold, former director of the EPA Office of Civil Enforcement's Special Litigation and Projects Division, said all the legal baggage complicates the effort to write a clear, scientifically defensible rule for protecting areas that are valuable as filters for water pollution, buffers for floodwaters and habitat for wildlife.

Florida has seen bad effects from Trump-like climate gag orders

Kristina Trotta was working for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Miami in 2014 when she and her colleagues were called into a staff meeting. “We were told by the regional director that we were no longer supposed to say ‘global warming,’ ‘climate change’ or ‘sea level rise,’” says Trotta, who works on coral reef conservation. “We were finally told we are the governor’s agency and this is what the governor wants, and so this is what we’re going to do.”

Florida’s hush order, along with a similar effort in North Carolina, offers a preview of what will happen if Pres. Donald Trump continues preliminary moves to muzzle climate communication from key federal agencies. The Florida gag effort was part of a broader move by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who questions the scientific consensus on climate change. Experts and local officials say it hampered community efforts to plan for worsening flooding and extreme weather.

Now on the national level all references to climate change have been removed from the White House Web site (except those promising to eliminate Obama climate policies). Trump aides also reportedly ordered the deletion of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s main page on the topic, although those plans were put on hold after word leaked out. Federal agencies have more responsibilities than state authorities, including gathering and analyzing authoritative data about effects on wide areas of the country. If they pull back, the negative effects could be much bigger.

Legislature needs educating about flood risk

A state senator proposing legislation to mitigate flood risk said Friday that lawmakers in Tallahassee don’t fully appreciate the extent of that risk.

Brandes discussed flood insurance during the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Insurance Summit in Miami.

He has introduced SB 584, to create a statewide flood mitigation and assistance program, providing up to $50 million per year in matching grant money.

The money would help reduce the risk and severity of coastal flooding by using Amendment 1 resources for land acquisition and preservation, and extending the expiration of deregulated rates in flood insurance to 2025 from 2017, giving the flood insurance market more time to grow.

National Flood Insurance Program costs less in communities that have mitigated their flood risk, Brandes said during a short interview.

What would happen to Florida if the EPA really did go away?

For years the Environmental Protection Agency has been depicted as a jackbooted thug, a humorless generator of red tape, even the nefarious villain in such films as The Simpsons Movie and the original Ghostbusters.

Now the agency started by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, faces an uncertain future. The new president who once pledged to eliminate it now promises to refocus it. The man he nominated to be its new leader, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, made his reputation suing it. Meanwhile, a Florida congressman has filed a bill to obliterate it.

Under the bill filed by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the EPA would cease to exist at the end of 2018.

"They have exceeded their original mission substantially under both Republican and Democratic presidents and violated the sovereignty of the states," Gaetz said in explaining his bill. "I think we need to start fresh."

His bill would leave it to "states and local governments to protect their environmental assets in the absence of federal overreach."

County hosting flood zone workshops

Sarasota County will host a series of educational flood zone workshops throughout 2017 at several county libraries.

The workshops are intended to educate residents, lenders and insurance and real estate agents about flood risks, zones, maps, regulations and mandatory insurance purchase requirements. Attendees will also find out why flood zone maps are continuously updated.

All workshops are from 10:15 a.m. to noon, and no registration is required. Some upcoming workshop dates and locations include:

  • Feb. 6 at North Port Library, 13800 Tamiami Trail, North Port
  • Feb. 14 at Selby Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota
  • Feb. 22 at Fruitville Library, 100 Coburn Road, Sarasota
  • March 2 at Elsie Quirk Library, 100 Dearborn St., Englewood
  • March 14 at Jacaranda Library, 4143 Woodmere Park Blvd., Venice

To see the full list of 2017 workshops or for more information, visit scgov.net/Floodprotection or call the Sarasota County Contact Center at 941-861-5000.

Obliterating EPA would create chaos, experts say

After soliciting endorsement from his colleagues earlier this week to eradicate the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz has garnered support from a trio of congressmen in what he assures would translate to a smooth transition in oversight and regulations from the federal government to individual states.

But legal experts disagree with the Fort Walton Beach Republican, arguing that eliminating the agency would incite statutory chaos and devastating impacts to human health and the environment.

"When it was originally created, states and local communities didn’t have the technology or expertise to protect the environment," said Gaetz, who has targeted 2018 for when he hopes to see the agency disappear. "We’ve come a long way in the last 50 years. Time and again, I’ve seen constituents unknowingly subject themselves to the oppressive jurisdiction of the EPA by doing simple things."

Gaetz said Reps. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) have agreed to co-sponsor a bill to the House Committee on Natural Resources to eliminate the agency. At that point, the committee's chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), would decide if it would be put to a vote. Many environmental protection laws create legal standing for states to enforce federally administrated regulations. Gaetz contended that without the EPA, authority for those laws would simply shift to states. But multiple professors at the University of Florida Levin College of Law contradicted him.

"A lot of states just don’t have resources available to them," said Mary Jane Angelo, professor and director of the Environmental and Land Use Law Program at the university. "Wealthier states would have better protection for their citizens’ health than poorer states."

SWFWMD reports gains in seagrass coverage in Sarasota Bay

Scientists with the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s (SWFWMD) Surface Water Improvement and Management, or SWIM program, released the results of the 2016 seagrass mapping study showing Sarasota Bay now supports 13,469 acres of seagrass beds; an increase of 180 acres in seagrass coverage.

Sarasota Bay waters includes five bay segments made up of Manatee and Sarasota County waters. Three of the five bay segments gained seagrass from 2014 to 2016 with an overall 1.4% increase since 2014.

Sarasota Bay contains more seagrass as of 2016 than it has at any other time in the history of the District mapping program; the largest amount of seagrass measured since the 1950s.

The District maps seagrass in five estuaries spanning the five coastal counties of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota, and Charlotte.

Documenting the extent of seagrass and how it changes overtime is a valuable tool for scientists throughout Florida. Seagrasses are an important barometer of a bay’s health because they require relatively clean water to flourish, thus they are sensitive to changes in water clarity and quality.

The District’s maps are used as a tool for measuring and tracking biological integrity of estuaries as it relates to water quality conditions. Seagrass generally grows in waters less than 6 feet deep, but in the clear waters around Egmont and Anclote Keys it can be found in water ten feet deep or more.

The District began its formal seagrass mapping program in 1988. As part of the program, SWIM scientists assess seagrass in five Gulf coast estuaries. Every two years maps are produced from aerial photographs and then verified for accuracy by conducting field surveys. The results are used to track trends in seagrass and to evaluate ongoing water quality improvement efforts.

In Florida, debate over pollution limits rages

In Florida, members of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation argued with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in January about its handling of controversial new water pollution limits.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported that In May, the DEP introduced an update to human health criteria “for 43 chemical compounds that are allowed in Florida’s rivers, lakes and estuaries and [created] new limits for 39 others.”

The agency’s plan received a lot of criticism from environmental groups, not only because of the relaxed standards for some of the chemicals but also because of the way the agency presented the proposal.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported that on May 15 Florida wanted to weaken its restrictions on roughly two dozen cancer-causing chemicals that it would allow in its surface waters.

DEP Secretary Jon Steverson said the coverage "inaccurately and unfairly" depicted the agency's proposal.

"The state has some of the most comprehensive water quality standards in the country, including the most advanced numeric nutrient criteria in the entire nation," Steverson told the Tallahassee Democrat. "We will continue to coordinate with EPA to adopt standards that will ensure our residents and natural resources enjoy clean and safe water."

Originally, the DEP stated that it would take the proposal to the state Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC) for approval in the fall but changed the meeting to July. The ERC had then voted on the plan while two of its seats set aside for environmental and local government representation were vacant. The ERC in July approved the limits in a 3 to 2 vote.

State may require licensing for kayaks, canoes, paddle boards

Update: FWC refutes assertion that licensing is intended

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released a statement clarifying its position on the licensing of non-motorized watercraft, as follows:

Today, a group of citizens and stakeholders charged to make recommendations to FWC’s Boating Advisory Council considered a proposal for expanding vessel registration to non-motorized boats in Florida. The FWC appreciates the work of this advisory group, but we are not supportive of increasing fees on Floridians or visitors who participate in non-motorized boating. The FWC greatly values our boating community and will continue to work hard to keep Florida’s standing as the boating capital of the world without increasing costs and fees.

—Nick Wiley, FWC Executive Director

Original News Article:

To fans of kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding, gliding along Florida waters is an expression of freedom; to advocates of boating-regulation reform, it's time to mandate licensing for small craft without motors.

A citizens panel assembled by state-boating authorities will meet in Orlando on Wednesday to explore what could become a path to adopting registration and fees for small boats powered by humans, wind and currents.

"That sounds like a root canal for a paddler," said retired Coast Guard officer William Griswold, a member of the Non-Motorized Boats Working Group, a panel reporting ultimately to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But we need to start to get a grip on how many of these boats are out there."

Proposals for licensing Florida's canoes, kayaks and other motorless craft have surfaced in past years.

Each has been met by vehement opposition from paddlers and sailors of small boats, who say their pastime is healthy, affordable, inflicts little harm to the environment and is akin to riding a bicycle.

President Trump transition leader's goal is two-thirds cut in EPA employees

The red lights are flashing at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The words of Myron Ebell, the former head of President Donald Trump's EPA transition team, warn employees of a perilous future. Ebell wants the agency to go on a severe diet.

It's one that would leave many federal employees with hunger pains, and jobless too.

Ebell has suggested cutting the EPA workforce by 5,000, about a two-thirds reduction, over the next four years. The agency's budget of $8.1 billion would be sliced in half under his prescription, which he emphasized is his own and not necessarily Trump's.

MOTE debuts podcat: "Two Sea Fans"

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Hear true stories of marine research from scientists who dive hundreds of feet, tag big sharks, collect fish poop, and have many other adventures in the name of research and conservation, in the new podcast “Two Sea Fans.”

In each episode, Mote Marine Laboratory scientists and their partners have fun and educational conversations with hosts Joe Nickelson and Hayley Rutger, two sea fans who love communicating marine science to help listeners become more ocean-literate.

New episodes debut every two weeks, streaming at www.mote.org/podcasts and available for free download through iTunes.

Changes in rainfall, temperature expected to transform coastal wetlands this century

Sea-level rise isn’t the only aspect of climate change expected to affect coastal wetlands: changes in rainfall and temperature are predicted to transform wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world within the century. These changes will take place regardless of sea-level rise, a new study from the US Geological Survey and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley concludes.

Such changes are expected to affect the plant communities found in coastal wetlands. For example, some salt marshes are predicted to become mangrove forests, while others could become salty mud flats. These shifts in vegetation could affect the ecological and economic services wetlands provide to the communities that rely on them.

“Coastal wetlands are an invaluable resource,” said Christopher Gabler, a former USGS scientist, currently an assistant professor at the Texas university, and lead author of the study, published January 23 in Nature Climate Change. “They protect surrounding communities from storms and coastal erosion, support fisheries and wildlife, purify water pollution, and help prevent dead zones from forming in the Gulf.”

Court reinstates EPA rule to allow pumping dirty water unchecked

South Florida water managers can keep moving dirty water from farms and suburbs into the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee without obtaining federal pollution permits, a divided U.S. appeals court ruled this week in New York.

The ruling stems from a decades-long battle by the Miccosukee Tribe and environmentalists to stop water managers from moving water from one body of water to another — for supplies, flood control or other purposes — without first obtaining a federal pollution permit. Dirty water has been at the heart of Everglades restoration, where marshes can quickly get choked by water rich in nutrients. Similar cases eventually surfaced around the country, with sporting groups and environmentalists similarly fighting to keep dirty water from natural areas.

Wednesday’s decision, the result of consolidating a number of cases before New York’s 2nd Circuit court, means the South Florida Water Management District can continue moving water unchecked, which environmentalists directly blame for fouling the Everglades.

Environmental groups want EPA to nix Florida’s new water standards

With a series of legal challenges still hanging fire, environmental groups are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject Florida’s controversial water quality standards.

Environmental groups are asking the EPA to reject Florida's latest water quality standards.

Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeepers, accuses state regulators of using a statistical sleight of hand to justify higher levels of toxins.

“We’re really concerned about things like the bioaccumulation factor and how these chemicals actually accumulate in fish and then get transferred to the human population; toxicity limits and other ways that they accounted for risk.”

The standards are being challenged administratively and in a Pensacola federal court. State regulators say the standards, which are more stringent for some pollutants and more lax for others, are safe and based on the latest science.

Siesta Key Association files lawsuit against Big Pass dredging plan

The Siesta Key Association and a longtime Siesta resident will file a lawsuit seeking to block the controversial plan to dredge sand from Big Pass to renourish Lido Key beaches, the group announced late Sunday.

The complaint will be filed in addition to the group's appeal of a state decision to issue a permit for the project.

The lawsuit will contend that the proposed dredging violates the environmental chapter of Sarasota County's comprehensive plan, which prohibits dredge-and-fill activities except to maintain previously dredged navigational channels or drainage canals, according to a draft of the complaint.

But the Big Pass channel between Lido and Siesta keys has never been dredged.

Therefore the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's notice of intent to issue the permit necessary for the project violates the county plan and should be subject to County Commission approval, the complaint will contend.

Forum: Collaboration needed to counter looming water shortage

If Florida's population continues to grow, the state's drinking water supplies could be 1 billion gallons a day short of meeting the demand by 2030, a state senator warned about 120 people gathered at a forum on regional water issues Thursday.

"We have to be proactive," Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, Republican chairman of the General Appropriations Committee, said during a program hosted by the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority and attended by county commissioners, utility managers and others interested in protecting but also expanding potable water sources.

Floridians should not "wake up one day in 2030" and realize the opportunity to "build significant water infrastructure" has passed, State Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Lakeland, said. "We need to build coalitions," the chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee advised. "We need to raise the bar."

Latvala, Albritton and other speakers agreed that the Peace River Manasota authority sets an example that other regions in the state need to follow.

Instead of fighting over existing and potential water supplies, the local governments in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto governments decided to collaborate 25 years ago.

Today, the regional authority has become instrumental in connecting public utilities so water can be shared throughout the four-county region - especially in times of emergencies.

DEP secretary Jon Steverson resigns after stormy 2-year tenure

Jon Steverson, who for two stormy years has led the state Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Rick Scott, resigned late Friday, effective Feb. 3.

Steverson, whose agency was criticized for not telling the public about a sinkhole at Mosaic's Mulberry phosphate plant last year, made no public announcement about his resignation and did not respond to a request for an interview.

His two-page resignation letter makes no mention of the sinkhole, nor of Steverson's other controversies involving his call to allow hunting and other moneymaking activities at state parks, his replacement of experienced people with inexperienced ones and his push for new water quality standards that allow a larger amount of cancer-causing chemicals to be dumped into the state's waterways.

Instead, the letter focuses on the increased spending by Scott on Everglades restoration and saving the state's springs. He also saluted Scott for pursuing a lawsuit against Georgia over the long-running Tri-State Water War.

Wild ride awaits for water issues under Trump

Donald Trump made some big campaign promises about water during his election campaign. Now that he has been elected president, those promises could dramatically shake up how water is managed in the arid West.

In one of his few direct statements about water, Trump has said he wants to invest in treatment systems to prevent problems caused by aging distribution lines, citing as an example the drinking-water contamination in the Michigan city of Flint. To do this, he proposes to triple funding for a federal loan program, called the state revolving fund, from the current $2 billion to $6 billion.

This could be a boon to local water and wastewater utilities struggling to pay for decaying infrastructure.

Paradoxically, Trump has also vowed to slash Clean Water Act regulations. In particular, he is targeting rules adopted by the Obama administration to protect wetlands and marshes, the nation’s natural water filters.

Like Trump’s vow to build a wall on the Mexican border, these proposed changes would encounter a host of inconvenient realities associated with government. Working that out is certain to be disruptive, whatever the outcome.