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DEP faces future legal battle over seawalls that interfere with turtle nesting

Singer Island in Palm Beach County has suffered major beach erosion that in some cases threatens the stability of expensive condos. This is the Aquarius development, as seen in 2007. [Palm Beach County]

Four conservation groups notified the state Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday that they intend to sue over its permitting of seawalls that block sea turtles from nesting on Florida beaches.

The agency has already been under fire from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its permitting because all sea turtles are legally protected species.

The notice, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Foundation and the Surfrider Foundation, contends the DEP is violating federal law by handing out seawall permits in nesting territory with no regard for the turtles. Earthjustice is representing the groups.

"The state of Florida is recklessly permitting seawalls that destroy Florida's beautiful beaches, harm sea turtles and do nothing to protect Florida from rising seas," said Jaclyn Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity.

She expressed hope that negotiating with the groups for a resolution might provide an "opportunity for Gov. Scott to take sea level rise seriously and work with scientists to come up with a comprehensive plan to protect Florida's environment and economy."

But the barrier island specifically mentioned in the lawsuit, Singer Island in Palm Beach County, has suffered major beach erosion that in some cases threatens the stability of expensive condos.

Geologists call barrier islands "dynamic." They are constantly moving as they erode in one place and build back up in another. Singer Island's beach has been losing about 15 feet a year since 2001, but the dunes where it might have built back are covered with concrete. Some condos were built near the shoreline even as older buildings nearby were obviously teetering on the edge of disaster.

Six years ago, state and federal politicians were pushing for a $30 million taxpayer-funded project to build 11 rock walls about 200 feet off Singer Island's beach. Experts said the walls would only slow down the erosion, not stop it, while sea turtles would be blocked from nesting. In the end, county officials withdrew their application for a permit for the breakwater.

The Palm Beach County island, which protrudes farther into the Atlantic Ocean than any other part of Florida's coastline, is one of the best places in the state for loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles to lay their eggs. That's why the DEP's approval of new seawalls there has been such a concern for the federal agency in charge of protecting endangered species.

"Allowing additional seawall construction, especially if they are not constructed as far landward as technologically possible" could violate the Endangered Species Act's rules against unauthorized killing, wounding or harassment of a protected animal, federal officials pointed out in a 2013 letter to the DEP.

Turtle conservation advocates have expressed fears that the DEP is allowing something similar to happen all around the state, creating a Great Wall of Florida.

Each permit the DEP issues for building seawalls, bulkheads and other beach structures contains a sentence that says it "will result in no significant adverse impacts to the beach/dune areas or to adjacent properties" and that it "is not expected to adversely impact nesting sea turtles, their hatchlings or their habitat."

Agency officials say they coordinate permitting with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure no harm ensues for the turtles.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared 685 miles of beaches around the South to be critical habitat for loggerhead turtles. Florida beaches account for about 300 of that 685 miles.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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