Guest Comment: Upping the ante to protect Southwest Florida
Last year’s toxic algae crisis has been rightly crowned a historic turning point for our region. Many community leaders, residents, environmental groups and news organizations have come together to propose critical solutions for saving our waters, uniting to play an influential role in urging decision-makers to take action. However, there is still much more to be done in order to safeguard Southwest Florida’s waters for future generations. Here are five more issues Florida will have to tackle head-on to protect our region’s economy, environment and quality of life:
1. Florida assumption of federal 404 wetland destruction permitting process
Not only are wetlands home to endangered species, they also provide valuable service to our human communities by storing 1 million gallons of floodwater per acre and treating pollutants. Yet, our state wants to fast-track wetland destruction permits by taking over the federal permitting process. If Florida is successful, critical federal protections – such as those that protect fish habitat and require agencies to review the environmental effects of their actions – will be eliminated. In 2011, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection permitted almost 10,000 acres of mining impacts in Lee County. The only thing that kept bulldozers at bay was the federal permitting process. Florida should abandon its efforts to assume control of the 404 program.
2. Onshore fracking (and all advanced well stimulation treatments)
If we only look at the issue of offshore drilling, we ignore the risk posed by onshore drilling taking place in our backyard. Over the last three years, the Burnett Oil Company significantly damaged over 100 miles of the Big Cypress swamp in search of oil. A few miles north, the Collier-Hogan well was permitted to use millions of gallons of fresh drinking water. Both hydraulic fracturing and matrix acidizing – forms of advanced well stimulation – were used. These processes utilize a multitude of toxic chemicals that threaten our waters. The state needs to ban all forms of advanced well stimulation treatments now.
3. Not investing in our natural infrastructure through public land acquisition
Florida loses the equivalent of 10 acres of natural and agricultural lands an hour. These lands allow rainwater to recharge our aquifers, where 90% of Floridians obtain their drinking water. In addition, native vegetation naturally filters pollutants in stormwater before they reach our surface waters or aquifers. As these areas are converted to other land uses, we replace natural pollution sinks with new pollution sources. The historic average allocation to the Florida Forever program is $300 million, yet the program only received $33 million last year. To protect Florida’s waters from rampant development, the Legislature should dedicate the largest percentage of funds in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to land acquisition.
4. Continuing to permit development in our eastern lands
Southwest Florida continues to be eaten away by development. We are in the fight of our lives to save the remaining Lee County DR/GR and Collier County Rural Lands Stewardship Area that encompass critical wetland ecosystems. Right now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is considering permitting the so-called “Eastern Collier Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP), which would allow 45,000 acres of development and mining in the last core panther habitat, jeopardizing the species with extinction. Despite objection from thousands of citizens who wrote the agency with concerns about wildlife, water, agriculture loss and the extreme cost of building the necessary roads to support the addition of 300,000 people to this rural area, the agency is considering granting the mega-permit. Once in place, the plan would last 50 years and is nearly impossible to change, setting the course for paving away Southwest Florida. FWS must deny the HCP.
5. Allowing new toll roads to bring growth to our heartland
With our natural lands already under siege, the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) toll road additions could be the nail in the coffin to a sustainable Florida. The proposed roads would needlessly devastate Florida’s most remote landscapes, altering both habitat and hydrology. The Southwest-Central Florida Connector could extend from Polk County to Collier County, fragmenting the last remaining landscapes that support panther and other species, as well as agricultural and timber lands essential to regional economies. We are also concerned that this unneeded road would stimulate sprawling development and divert significant funding from fixing existing transportation problems.
We encourage the concerned public to join us in advocating for smart solutions to our water quality issues by addressing these critical land-based issues now. To learn more, visit www.conservancy.org.
– Rob Moher is president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a not-for-profit environmental protection organization with a 55-year history focused on issues impacting the water, land, wildlife and future of five Florida counties.