Saturday, November 18, 2017

Special interests trump Florida's environment in wetlands bills


It would be one thing if Florida lawmakers genuinely tried to improve an ineffective wetlands mitigation policy. But elevating a single private industry's interests over the state's long-term water needs is not the answer. Changing state law so that the Department of Transportation is more likely to purchase wetland mitigation credits from private mitigation banks is another government giveaway masquerading as environmental protection. Private mitigation banks may have a role to play, but they should not be allowed to corner the market.

Under the little-noticed mitigation bills (HB 599/SB 824), the Department of Transportation — the largest destroyer each year of aquifer-recharging wetlands in Florida — would be required to give a preference to private mitigation banks when spending wetlands mitigation money. That would be a boon to the industry, which has seen the prices it can command fall with the rest of Florida's real estate-based industries. If this unfairness is not enough to kill the legislation, this should do it: The House amended its bill to make taxpayers liable for potential accidents caused by Amtrak on the 61-mile SunRail commuter line in Orlando.

Mitigation banks are created when a landowner agrees to hold restored wetland property in perpetuity, thereby creating "credits" that can be sold to developers destroying wetlands elsewhere. It's a different option than on-site mitigation, for example, which the water management district can require under current law.

The state's own record with mitigation banking is nothing to boast about, as detailed in a 2006 investigative series by the Tampa Bay Times. And in 2007, a study done for the state Department of Environmental Protection found fewer than half of the mitigation banks reviewed had achieved the goals required in their permits. Even the federal government's Government Accountability Office raised concerns in 2005, saying regulators failed to follow up after issuing mitigation bank permits.

Nothing in these bills adequately addresses those concerns. Instead, they further undermine the 40-year mission of the five water management districts. Under Gov. Rick Scott, the districts have seen a steady erosion of resources and autonomy. The governor and the Legislature slashed their tax rates, and the local basin boards have been eliminated. Then there's the demise of Florida Forever, the state's once-heralded conservation program that helped water management districts buy and preserve land needed to protect watersheds.

This plan would make it far less likely that water management districts would receive a share of mitigation dollars — which totaled $116 million over the past four years — from the Department of Transportation. It so favors the private mitigation option that sounder environmental options stand little chance.

Florida needs a better policy for monitoring mitigation efforts — including inside the water management districts. But this plan isn't it. It's just more special interest spending at the expense of all Floridians' interests in long-term water protection.


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