In a plan that would make it easier to destroy our water resources, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis is formally proposing a takeover of the federal program that issues permits when developers and others want to fill sensitive wetlands.
Florida — which does not have adequate staff or safeguards in place — would take over a longstanding federal program that protects marshes, cypress forests, ponds, and other wetlands under the Clean Water Act. Only two other states have ever done this.
“Powerful developers and lobbyists got their political friends to come up with a similar scheme back in 2005, but Florida walked away after state analysts produced a report showing the cost and complexity of federal wetlands protection,” said Tania Galloni, Managing Attorney for the Florida office of the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice. “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t have the proper capacity to take over the wetlands permitting that has been run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for decades. It can’t even manage to enforce the environmental laws already under its purview.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection published a notice today that it intends to take over the program. The public has 21 days to request a hearing.
Over the years, Florida has done little more than rubber-stamp massive wetland destruction, and has let industry lobbyists write environmental rules to make them weaker.
“Florida is already developing at a breakneck speed, putting enormous pressure on limited natural resources. Wetland destruction is not something that should be fast-tracked,” said Amber Crooks, Environmental Policy Manager at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
With the so-called “Section 404” federal permitting program in place, Floridians have two layers of protection for valuable wetlands, which are a key part of the hydrogeological system that provides our drinking water.
“Some of Florida’s most fragile and unique ecosystems are regulated under Section 404 and they require the highest level of review, scrutiny, and protection,” said Miami Waterkeeper Rachel Silverstein.
Under the federal Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to extensively study the impact to the environment and require developers to reduce and mitigate damage to wetlands and other waters before issuing permits. Federal courts ensure compliance with the law.
This is why developers are relying on Governor DeSantis’s tacit approval of this controversial attempt by the Florida DEP to assume authority over clean water act permits from the federal government at the request of wealthy developers.
“They simply want to fast track more development in Florida,” Galloni said.
State-run permitting programs are notoriously expensive and difficult to set up. They require adequate staffing and resources to ensure enforcement. That is why the vast majority of states have not even tried to take over federal wetlands permitting. Assumption of permitting authority would fill the pockets of developers while creating an incredible financial burden on the state. Florida’s tourism and fishing industries — which contribute tens of billions of dollars to the state’s economy — would also be at risk, because they depend on healthy wetland ecosystems.
Governor DeSantis can stop this ill-informed project which would remove vital protection for the hundreds of species and countless aquatic organisms that make up Florida’s landscape.
“With water being of critical importance for the economy, human health, and the ecology of our state, we must ensure robust wetlands protections and enforcement of federal laws, not streamlining to fast-track development permits,” said Preston Robertson, President of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
“Florida’s wetlands are its lifeblood, sustaining our remarkable biodiversity and cleaning our freshwater” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Gov. DeSantis has talked the talk, and now he needs to not just walk the walk, but run far away from this ill-conceived plan to weaken protections for our wetlands.”