EPA agrees to let Florida oversee more wetlands development

The move has long been opposed by environmentalists.
Vegetation grows on a wetland area in Clearwater.
Vegetation grows on a wetland area in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Dec. 17, 2020|Updated Feb. 12, 2021

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday approved Florida taking control of development decisions in more of the state’s wetlands, a proposal long opposed by many environmentalists.

“Florida has a wealth of aquatic resources. They care about their resources as least as much and I would say probably more than the federal government,” said Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s administrator. “Receiving permission to administer this program is a high bar for states to meet, but what we have done today is provide a roadmap for other states to follow.”

Wetlands permitting is governed by the Clean Water Act. Wheeler said Congress always intended for states to take it on, but only New Jersey and Michigan have previously.

Oversight of dredging and filling in much of the state’s wetlands — part of construction projects across Florida — has historically fallen under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Builders in particular disdained the process, which they said could be slow, redundant and a waste of money. They said the state performed similar permit reviews, and faster. The delays, they said, added to costs for homebuyers and taxpayers.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said his agency’s wetlands scientists “live among the resources” and “care passionately about (them).”

“We want to be in the driver’s seat,” Valenstein said.

A Great White Egret hunts for food in the back waters of the Withlacoochee River in 2005.
A Great White Egret hunts for food in the back waters of the Withlacoochee River in 2005. [ Times (2005) ]

Environmentalists have fought the measure, arguing that a deliberate process is necessary to ensure a state that has already paved over many wetlands does not lose more. State officials are pressured by deadlines, they say, and are more susceptible than the federal government to local influence from industries such as agriculture, construction and road building — all of which work around wetlands.

Related: Hundreds of opponents ask EPA to deny Florida more control of its wetlands

“Handing federal oversight of Florida’s wetlands and waterways to the state’s pro-development regulators will speed the bulldozing of the special places that are home to 130 of our most endangered plants and animals,” said Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Wetlands offer a buffer from storm surge, habitat for wildlife and a natural bank for storing and filtering water.

The idea of the state taking over permitting failed in the past but was revived by the Legislature in 2018 under then-Gov. Rick Scott. The Department of Environmental Protection continued the effort under Gov. Ron DeSantis and formally applied to take on the permitting this year.

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“This is an issue that we’ve all been trying to get done forever,” said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican.

In two virtual meetings and hundreds of comments online, nature advocates and Florida residents asked federal regulators to deny or at minimum delay a decision on the state’s application. A Tampa Bay Times review of a portion of comments found that about 90 percent of people opposed the state’s plan.

A number of commenters said the department saw reductions in staff under former Gov. Scott and in their view, state regulators are already overburdened. They noted that federal reviews can spur opportunities for public comment that are not always matched by the state.

Related: Feds consider plan to transfer Florida wetlands permitting to state

“Our wetlands provide drinkable, swimmable, and fishable waters, and generate billions of dollars for our tourism-based economy,” wrote Marian Ryan, vice chair of the Ancient Islands Sierra Club in Central Florida. “They are deserving of the highest level of protection.”

The environmental law advocacy organization Earthjustice, which led opposition to the state’s plan, suggested Thursday it could consider a legal challenge to the decision.

“This is a parting gift to developers from the outgoing administration in Washington in coordination with the sitting administration in Florida,” said Tania Galloni, Earthjustice managing attorney for Florida. “It’s about destroying wetlands faster and cheaper at a time when we need more protection, not less. We’re considering our options.”

Regulators, though, said the state will be held to the same standards as the federal government under the Clean Water Act. The Department of Environmental Protection has assured it can take on the workload without hiring more staffers because it estimated 85 percent of the duties overlap with existing functions. Valenstein said his agency has more than 200 staffers who could work full- or part-time on wetlands permitting.

“We are held accountable to the federal law,” Valenstein said.

Related: Florida moving ahead to take over federal wetlands permitting

Florida plans to unroll its program almost immediately. State officials have been working with the Army Corps for at least a month on the transition, according to Valenstein. The Environmental Protection Agency will still have oversight of the state program, he said, including through annual reviews. Federal officials are expected to continue supervising some major bodies of water.

Besides development, the state has said, it hopes the new process will also speed up restoration projects, including around the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. After the announcement, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a statement with supportive comments from leaders of The Nature Conservancy in Florida and Everglades Foundation.

“This decision today will help streamline the permitting process for Florida businesses and private landowners,” said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican. “We’ve been working toward this goal for a very long time.”

Correction:  An estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey shows Florida has a little more than one-tenth of America’s wetlands, not including Alaska or Hawaii. An earlier version of this story gave a disputed figure.