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Eroding natural Florida

Last year, Florida's Republican-led Legislature eviscerated growth management protections, shortchanged Everglades restoration and gutted local control over water policy.

Gov. Rick Scott was more than willing to go along. Yet since then, he has shown more interest in protecting Florida's environment by backing Everglades restoration and limited purchases of conservation land. And in the Florida Senate — where the BP oil spill rightly continues to cast a cloud over the prospects for near-shore drilling — there's interest in creating incentives for advancing renewable energy.

But those potential bright spots are easily overshadowed by lawmakers who appear determined to further erode longtime protections of natural systems. Dozens of bills working their way through House and Senate committees would compound the damage from last year. Some are direct assaults — eliminating the inspection of septic tanks, rolling back local wetlands protections, reviving inland oil drilling. Still others lay the groundwork for eventually eliminating the ability of state and local governments to deal in a comprehensive fashion with emerging environmental threats. The bills also shift the balance of power over environmental policy even further toward Tallahassee. Taken together, these measures pose a broad risk to the state's natural resources, economy and quality of life.

And it's clear environmental advocates will once again be playing defense. There are plenty of bills that need to be blocked:

HB 639, sponsored by Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, would exclude treated wastewater as a resource of the state. The net effect would be that reclaimed water would no longer have to be used for public benefit. Regional water management districts would no longer manage how reclaimed water was used. Nor could they direct utilities to use reclaimed to ease any water shortage or similar emergency. This is a wholesale giveaway of an emerging, vital commodity. Florida leads the nation in using reclaimed to conserve drinking water supplies and to replenish rivers, lakes and the aquifer. This bill would take a valuable public resource off the table at the very time it is playing a larger role in accommodating growth and conservation.

SB 466, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, would create a fast-track process for building new utilities on the state's barrier islands. The bill also would allow a local referendum to finance underground power, telephone and other utilities in coastal areas, at least in part to promote tourism. The measure would open a revenue stream in this tight economy that could push commercial development to the state's most sensitive lands, and at a time when governments are already curtailing services to existing residents in established neighborhoods.

HB 503, sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, would relax the requirements for developers to obtain an array of building permits. The measure also could bar counties such as Hillsborough, which has tougher wetlands regulations than the state, from enforcing their local laws. State agencies could deny by 2016 any request by cities and counties to enforce their tougher wetlands ordinances. The move would be a boon to builders but would leave large metropolitan areas especially vulnerable to flooding, pollution and further contamination of their drinking water supplies.

There are plenty of other ideas that don't consider long-term consequences. One bill removes a funding source for urban redevelopment projects just as another piece of legislation creates a shortcut for building new stormwater drainage in the urban core. And there are several plans to create statewide templates for environmental permitting. That idea might sound sensible if the state's hydrology was the same throughout Florida.

Officials in Hillsborough and several other counties are also concerned about the state's proposal to cut funding for local inspections of underground petroleum tanks and to shift that responsibility to contract workers. The program has been enormously successful in Hillsborough for more than two decades; local officials say that county inspectors already know the trouble spots and can perform the work far cheaper and more efficiently than private contractors.

Yet as bad as the individual bills are, the real focus should be on imagining the cumulative impact of a wholesale weakening of environmental protection. The budget cuts the governor and the Legislature imposed last year on the water management districts starved them not only of money for new supply and conservation projects, but forced layoffs that decimated the staffs and robbed the agencies of the institutional knowledge they need to act as a counterbalance to politicians and lobbyists in Tallahassee. It already is clear that battles the environmental lobby used to resolve years ago in meetings at the administrative level are now bumped up to the governor and Legislature. Proposals to relax environmental regulations, to cut back on spending for water quality efforts and to support conservation sporadically and on the cheap all stem from the notion that these are illegitimate priorities for the government in the first place.

Scott has changed his message in the last several months, calling a healthy environment essential to a sound economy. Scott would spend $40 million for Everglades restoration in 2012-2013. That is more than twice what he proposed last year, but still a fraction of previous spending and far short of what the long-term effort needs. And the best that can be said of the $15 million that Scott would spend for Forever Florida is that the governor at least has indicated he is not inclined to again veto all funding for the conservation lands program.

Clean-power advocates are hopeful that state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam will propose a strong package for renewable energy, an emerging priority for the environmental lobby. But whether the two are serious about this agenda remains to be seen. Both were among the harshest critics in Florida opposing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to write new clean-water standards for the state. And it's unclear if either is willing or capable of pushing environmental issues in a session that will be dominated by the budget and political redistricting.

Still, environmentalists have been realistic about the political climate and pragmatic enough to change tack. Everglades supporters have been effective in recent years in playing up the economic rationale for restoring the River of Grass; according to a recent survey, the project will generate $46 billion in benefits and almost a half-million jobs. The same point was hammered home after the BP oil spill, as small employers in the tourism and hospitality industries came together with environmentalists to hammer home the economic impact of clean beaches, healthy fisheries and uncontaminated water.

A poll funded by some of the nation's biggest environmental groups and released last month showed that Florida voters still overwhelmingly believe beaches and coastal areas are vital to the state's economy, but whether that level of public awareness can be sustained and channeled into a force this session is hard to tell. "I think it's going to be a tough year for us," said Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon of Florida. "And there are things we'll never see until the end of session."

John Hill can be reached at jhill@tampabay.com.

Eroding natural Florida 01/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 4:43pm]
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