Waterkeepers Florida Issues
Protecting the Clean Water Act
The state of Florida made a recent grab for federal Clean Water Act authority under Section 404. This part of the law requires permits for any discharge of dredge and fill materials into Waters of the United States such as wetlands, streams, rivers, canals, bays, and more. Waterkeepers Florida banded together to support the stance that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should allow the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to maintain its jurisdiction over Florida’s waters rather than grant the state’s request for jurisdiction.
In a letter to the Corps, Waterkeepers Florida writes, “Florida has particularly fragile and critical areas that are regulated by Section 404 dredge and fill permits, and which require the highest level of review and scrutiny.” The federal government is best able to achieve this necessary level of scrutiny and review due to their historic agency expertise and resources.
Waterkeepers Florida believes that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection does not have the resources to undertake this massive permitting responsibility. Nor does the agency have the intention to allocate any funding towards the training of new staff and other new resources required for a responsible permitting process. The state merely wishes to streamline a process specifically put in place to protect our valuable natural resources. The problem is that their version of streamlining will actually weaken the protections.
Fighting WOTUS Rollbacks
Under the new definition of Waters of the United States (WOTUS), crucial waterways would lose guaranteed protection under the Clean Water Act’s (CWA) pollution control, prevention, and clean-up programs. The new definition strips CWA protections from crucial waterways that feed our drinking water supplies, support our clean water economy, and provide numerous ecosystem services and resiliency dividends. The Everglades alone is an irreplaceable driver of Florida’s tourism, commercial and recreational fishing industries, outdoor recreation, biodiversity, and a source of drinking water for nearly 8 million Floridians.
Ecological impacts aside, the state of Florida relies on a clean water economy. Everglades National Park alone generates more than $100 million annually in tourism revenue. Outdoor recreation generates $58.6 billion annually and Florida is recognized as the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. Our waterways support billions of dollars in commerce each year and create tens of thousands of jobs for Floridians. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has estimated that more than 800,000 acres of wetlands in the Panhandle region would lose CWA protection under the rollbacks. In addition to this, almost half of Florida’s 52,000 miles of rivers and streams could also lose their protection. Any risk posed to these waterways is a direct risk to our economy and our livelihoods.
Waterkeepers Florida believes that the Environmental Protection Agency should be working to secure greater protections for these streams and wetlands, rather than revising the definition of WOTUS to put these important ecosystems at risk and will continue to fight against these changes.
Amendment 1 - Protect Land, Protect Water
One of the best ways to protect our waterways is to protect the land around it. In 2014, 74% of Floridians voted to pass Amendment 1, which allocates an estimated $740 million to the state to purchase land for conservation to protect wildlife, habitat, and water resources. Unfortunately, instead of using the money as the voters intended, the majority of the funds have been used on salaries, vehicles, and other expenses that are not permitted by the amendment, leaving little to nothing for the purchase of conservation land. The Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, and Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida filed suit over the misappropriation of these funds.
Waterkeepers Florida echoed the sentiments of the plaintiffs in this case by filing an amicus brief. Opposition quickly filed a response to the amicus brief, attempting to disqualify Waterkeepers Florida based on the incorrect claim that “Waterkeepers Florida is little more than an alter ego of St. Johns Riverkeeper.” The 13 independent Waterkeeper organizations that are members of the coalition include: Apalachicola Riverkeeper, St. Mary’s Riverkeeper, Emerald Coastkeeper, Suwanee Riverkeeper, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Matanzas Riverkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, St. John’s Riverkeeper, Indian Riverkeeper, Calusa Waterkeeper, Collier County Waterkeeper, Lake Worth Waterkeeper, and Miami Waterkeeper.
A motion for leave to file a reply was filed by Waterkeepers Florida, along with an attached complete reply to the motion clearly outlining the two entities as different from one another. Despite demonstrating that Waterkeepers Florida is in no way the same entity as St. John’s Riverkeeper, the 1st District Court of Appeal judge denied the briefs. While the result was unfavorable, the case is a reminder of the hurdles faced in environmental protection. Denial of briefs, however, will not deter Waterkeepers Florida from continuing to fight for land conservation to protect water quality.
Strengthening State Water Quality Standards
Waterkeepers Florida has expressed concern that Florida is at a tipping point at which red tide, blue-green algae, and brown algae may become a regularly occurring impediment to economic development and tourism, as well as a pervasive threat to public health. Under the Clean Water Act, states are required to conduct a comprehensive review of all of their water quality standards once every three years. This review is called a Triennial Review and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) Water Quality Standards Program (WQSP) is responsible for this process.
Waterkeepers Florida has been engaging with FDEP regarding its ongoing triennial review to oppose weakening any current water quality standards and to advocate for increasing critical protections. Specifically, Waterkeepers Florida is pushing for the adoption of water quality standards for dangerous cyanotoxins and increased turbidity standards for coral reefs, along with additional workshops to facilitate public input in this process.
Putting an End to Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution is a growing threat not only in our state, but globally. Unfortunately, in Florida, any municipality that attempts to phase out single-use plastics is subject to getting hit with a pricey lawsuit. Passed in 2008, the law (Fla. Stat. 403.7033) was intended to be temporary. The language stated that municipalities could not ban disposable plastic bags until the Florida Department of Environmental Protection provided a report that outlined the necessity for regulations of single-use plastics for the Legislature to adopt. The report was submitted to the Legislature in 2010, but no action was ever taken to update the statute. Ten years later, the outdated law is still on the books. Furthermore, another law (Fla. Stat. 500.90) similarly preempts municipalities from regulating expanded polystyrene (commonly known as styrofoam) within their own jurisdictions.
Luckily, cities have started to fight back. In 2016, the City of Coral Gables passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags and expanded polystyrene. Later that year, the City was sued by the Florida Retail Federation, which cited violations of the aforementioned laws. The judge at the trial court ruled in favor of the City on the basis that the statutes were unconstitutional. This led to a wave of cities and towns across the state following Coral Gables’s lead and enacting their own ordinances to phase out these dangerous sources of marine debris including a campaign by Matanzas Riverkeeper to ban single-use plastic bags, straws, and expanded polystyrene containers in the City of St. Augustine Beach. Unfortunately, the trial court’s decision was reversed on appeal which led many municipalities to repeal their single-use plastics ordinances for fear of getting sued. Now, the City of Coral Gables has decided to take the fight to the Supreme Court and Waterkeepers Florida is poised to file an amicus brief to support their position.
Taking on Cyanobacteria
Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), especially blooms of cyanobacteria, have been increasing in frequency, duration, and severity in the United States, particularly in Florida in recent years. They have been widely considered to be one of the greatest threats to water quality and ecosystems in inland and coastal communities. Many major Florida watersheds including the St. Johns River, Lake Okeechobee, Harris Chain of Lakes, Caloosahatchee River, and St. Lucie River have been significantly impacted by this type of algae bloom.
Cyanobacteria blooms are typically associated with high nutrient levels in a body of water. Cyanobacteria, like many other species, require oxygen to survive. The bacteria’s oxygen consumption can lead to a condition of low oxygen levels in the water called hypoxia. These areas of low oxygen, also known as Dead Zones, can lead to mortality of fish and benthic organisms due to lack of available dissolved oxygen in the water.
Waterkeepers Florida has engaged the newly formed Blue-Green Algae Task Force and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to urge FDEP to adopt new water quality standards through the Florida Triennial Review process to address cyanobacteria blooms. This would ensure that swim advisories and water quality remediation actions take place in an appropriate timeframe.