January 29, 2016

House advances Legacy Florida bill to earmark up to $200 million for Everglades

SW Big Birding Day AdventurAfter Florida lawmakers drew two lawsuits and bad publicity last year for diverting Amendment 1 money to salaries and expenses instead of devoting it exclusively to land and water conservation, a House committee approved a measure Thursday that not only attempts to repair their record but aims to repair decades of damage to the Everglades.

The Legacy Florida Act, proposed by incoming Senate President Joe Negron and Rep. Gayle Harrell requires the state to set aside 25 percent of Amendment 1 funds — up to $200 million a year — to fund Everglades restoration projects over the next 20 years.

The carve out, HB 989, was approved unanimously by the House Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday, and is expected to win easy passage in the Senate and be included in the Legislature’s final budget.

It will supply a stable funding source to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, a 30-year partnership with the federal government to spend $13.5 billion on restoration projects to clean up the ecosystem that is central to the state’s water supply.

Although the CERP program was established in 2000, both state and federal governments have struggled to provide the funds necessary to finance the planning and construction needed for the elaborate restoration projects.

Harrell, R-Stuart, said by dedicating the money each year to the restoration efforts, legislators can avoid “the food fight every year” as they scramble for the money. Story here.

Photo: A double crested cormorant suns itself along the Anhinga Trail during the Big Day Birding Adventure, a ‘citizen science’ activity to count birds within the varied habitats of Everglades National Park on Jan. 10, 2016. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

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January 26, 2016

House rejects attempts to impose more testing and regulation on oil and gas fracking in Florida

Fracking PennThe Florida House smacked down a series of Democratic amendments aimed at weakening a bill that prohibits local governments from banning high pressure well stimulation known as fracking and positioned the bill for approval by the full House on Wednesday.

The amendments, by Reps. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, would have allowed local governments to regulate the activity, impose testing of water quality and water wells, study the effects of the fracking chemicals on human health, and require local voter approval before fracking activities being.

Fracking involves the pumping of large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the ground using high pressure to recover oil and gas deposits.

The bill, HB 191, is sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodriques and is being pushed by the oil and gas industry. But it is also vigorously opposed by environmental groups and 41 cities and 26 counties -- including Miami Dade and Broward counties.

A similar measure, SB 318, is also moving quickly in the Senate. According to an analysis by the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau, the oil and gas industry contributed at least $443,000 to the political committees of top Republican lawmakers since the last election.

The top contributor, the Barron Collier Companies, which wants a permit to use hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas in Naples, steered $178,000 to lawmakers since December 2014, including $115,000 since July. Other members of the petroleum industry have contributed another of $265,000 this election cycle. 

Proponents of the bill said they won the support of the Florida Association of Counties and the League of Cities with a provision that postpones the prohibition on fracking bans until  a study on the impact of the state's geology is completed in 2017.

After that, the bill allows the controversial practice to go forward with minimal local regulation but requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to enact rules to regulate and monitor the practice. The rules would then have to be ratified by the Florida Legislature.

A similar bill, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has passed one committee in the Senate, where the bill died last year.

Photo:  Ray Kemble, a former fracking industry worker from Dimock, Penn., shows water from his and neighbors well after infiltrated by fracking chemicals. 

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January 25, 2016

South Florida mayors press Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush on climate change


Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have given little priority to climate change on the Republican presidential campaign trail, and a group of South Florida mayors have had enough.

Fifteen mayors from cities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties wrote the two Miami candidates a letter asking them to meet with local leaders to "discuss the risks facing Florida communities due to climate change and help us chart a path forward to protect our state and the entire United States."

"As mayors representing municipalities across Florida, we call on you to acknowledge the reality and urgency of climate change and to address the upcoming crisis it presents our communities," both letters begin. "Our cities and towns are already coping with the impacts of climate change today. We will need leadership and concrete solutions from our next president."

Most of the mayors are Democrats, and most of them serve in nonpartisan posts. But at least two are Republican, Tomás Regalado of Miami and Jim Cason of Coral Gables. Regalado is a Rubio supporter who showed up to the Florida senator's fundraiser at the InterContinental Hotel downtown two weeks ago.

"We are in ground zero, and we need to have our candidates from Florida address the issue," Regalado told the Miami Herald on Monday. "I understand that it's a very delicate issue for them, because some of their constituents do not agree or understand."

The mayors were prompted to sent the letter by ClimateTruth.org, a liberal environmental activist organization formerly known as Forecast the Facts.

Regalado said the mayors, some of whom have already worked together dealing with Florida Power & Light's proposed new power lines, "aspire to get climate change into the national conversation."

"We don't have any leverage with the Trumps and the Christies or the Cruzes of the nation, but I think that they are closer to home," he said of Bush and Rubio.

During high tides scientists say have been worsened by sea-level rise, Miami has seen flooding in its Upper Eastside and Brickell neighborhoods, Regalado said. The city created a committee to take on the issue only recently and needs resources, he added. Miami-Dade has had a task force in place for a couple of years; the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which comprises Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, was formed in 2009.

The mayors who signed the letters, in addition to Cason and Regalado, are: Peggy Bell, Cutler Bay; Joy Cooper, Hallandale Beach; Daniel Dietch, Surfside; Eugene Flinn, Palmetto Bay; Connie Leon-Kreps, North Bay Village; Cindy Lerner, Pinecrest; Mayra Peña Lindsay, Key Biscayne; Jeri Muoio, West Palm Beach; Martin Packer, Bal Harbour; Gary Resnick, Wilton Manors; Jack Seiler, Fort Lauderdale; Glenn Singer, Golden Beach; and Philip Stoddard, South Miami.

Download the letter to Rubio

Download the letter to Bush


January 20, 2016

White House sends science adviser to talk climate change in Miami

via @NickNehamas

South Florida business and political leaders must work together to protect the local economy from flooding and climate change, a White House adviser told a room of about 50 people including Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at a meeting in Brickell.

“There’s probably no place in the country where you can have less of an argument about climate change than South Florida,” said Robert Simon, an adviser in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “You see it everyday in Miami Beach.”

Flooding and coastal erosion could threaten Miami’s tourism and real estate sectors, he said. And climate change-caused disruption around the world could disrupt the global supply chain, killing the region’s ability to import and export valuable goods.

“Business leaders are getting more and more engaged in discussion about climate change as they see it as a core threat to their future profitability and even their existence,” said Simon, who added that global warming was undeniably the result of human activity.

More here.

Scott's DEP chief gains ground in Senate confirmation journey

Gov. Rick Scott's top environmental regulator moved a step closer to keeping his job Wednesday after a rigorous but successful confirmation hearing. The Senate Ethics & Elections Committee approved DEP Secretary Jon Steverson on a 7-2 vote, with Democrats Jeff Clemens and Geraldine Thompson voting no.

Steverson is one of a number of Scott agency heads who were not confirmed by the Senate in 2015, and they would lose their jobs if not confirmed by the full Senate in the current session. His confirmation now goes to the full Senate, where approval is considered likely.

Senators questioned Steverson on commercial activities in state parks, bidding on contracts, hydraulic fracking and hiring, and he staunchly defended his choice of Gary Clark as deputy secretary of state lands and parks.

January 15, 2016

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and the politics of climate change



Not 15 miles from the homes of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush on the mainland, Miami Beach work crews elevate the streets, turning ground floors effectively into windowed basements, to try to stave off the implacable rise of sea water. Up comes the powerful ocean, threatening people, property and the underground freshwater supply.

Can’t control nature, Rubio quips with a smile. Got bigger problems, Bush insists with exasperation.

“I don’t have a plan to influence the weather,” Rubio said dismissively at a town-hall style meeting in New Hampshire last month.

“It wouldn’t be on my first page of things that wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat,” Bush said in the same state on the same day.

Miami’s two Republican presidential candidates don’t sound much worried about one of their hometown’s most pressing environmental problems.

They’re not “deniers” who question climate change’s existence, as some of their presidential rivals do, though both say they’re skeptical about how much of it is man-made. Bush has gone further than Rubio, acknowledging sea rise’s long-term effects for Miami; he said in New Hampshire even a five-inch increase “would create some real hardship.”

But they sound markedly different from their local politicians who have resigned themselves to a harsh reality. Even if some of them don’t want to talk about how mankind’s thirst for fossil fuels is to blame for global warming, city and county leaders of both political parties have stopped debating whether South Florida is going under water.

More here.

Photo credit: Emily Michot, Miami Herald staff

January 14, 2016

Senate advances fracking bill but imposes new testing and legislative review

Florida Oil Exploration

As the prospect of drilling for oil inches ever closer to the Everglades, a Senate committee passed a measure to prohibit local governments from banning the controversial practice of drilling for natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but only after strengthening the protections against possible contamination and requiring lawmakers to sign off on any regulations.

The Florida Senate Environmental Protection and Conservation Committee surprised environmentalists by agreeing to a series of amendments that strengthen oversight of the practice — by requiring inspection of groundwater before and after the drilling begins — but the bill still allows companies to seek a permit to shoot thousands of gallons of water and acid into rock formations to release oil and gas trapped in the bedrock, known as acidization.

The proposal, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would require the Department of Environmental Protection to establish rules governing the process but it would also halt the ability of local governments to write local ordinances. Broward County has scheduled a hearing to become one of about 60 local governments that ban the practice as a wealthy developer has applied for a permit to drill for oil on the edge of the Everglades.

John Kanter, of Kanter Real Estate, has requested a drilling permit to conduct exploratory drilling for oil and gas along a major drainage canal about a half-dozen miles west of U.S. 27 and Miramar. Under current law, the state may grant the permit and impose no requirement that the chemicals be disclosed or groundwater be tested.

Under the bill, SB 318, a version of which is also moving in the state House, state regulators would conduct a $1 million, one-year study to determine what impact the chemicals used in the fracking process would have on the state drinking-water supply and then write new rules regulating the practice, beginning in 2017.

The regulations would include how the contaminated water and chemicals will be disposed of and the study will consider the potential for water contamination once a well has been plugged. Concerned about the impact to the state’s water system, the Senate included a provision that will require testing of ground water before and after the drilling occurs and require that any rules developed by state officials get a vote of approval from the Legislature.

“It would give our constituents who have a lot of nervousness about this a little more comfort in knowing the folks they are electing are going to take one more look before we start fracking in the State of Florida,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who proposed the amendment.

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December 15, 2015

Ag commissioner, congressman seek federal disaster aid for South Florida farmers


via @jenstaletovich

Federal disaster aid is being sought for South Florida farmers who said Monday that many fields remain under water more than a week after heavy rain triggered widespread flooding.

At a press conference called by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare flooded farmlands a disaster so farmers can apply for relief, including loans. Farmers say they’ve lost millions in crops, although the final tally is still being calculated.

A half-dozen farmers who attended the meeting also complained that water managers did too little in advance after forecasts called for heavy rain.

“We’ve been through worse and never had water standing for this long,” said farmer Mike Causely, who lost 300 acres of beans and sweet corn. He said low interest loans would not likely help: “You know what a loan is in our industry? Another rope to hang yourself with.”

On Dec. 3, the region was hit with heavy rain that lasted three days, becoming the wettest three-day period since 2000. Water managers tracking forecasts had started lowering water levels in canals, clearing vegetation and manning pumps round the clock to deal with the deluge. But when a second round of heavy rain hit two days later, the system backed up, flooding streets from Homestead to Kendall and leaving hundreds of acres of farmland in the middle of a winter growing season underwater.

More here.

Photo: Courtesy South Florida Water Management District

December 10, 2015

South Florida water managers cut back on public comment


If you've got something to say to the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, talk fast.

On Thursday, the board unveiled a new policy that cuts back on public comment. Rather than give speakers three minutes to address the board as each issue - often technical stuff loaded with politics and science - is discussed, public speakers now get only one shot at addressing the board. For three minutes. Total.

That did not go over well with regular attendees, mostly environmentalists, who often drive many miles to reach the West Palm Beach headquarters for a district spread over 16 counties.

When her turn came and board chairman Dan O'Keefe refused to extend the three-minute limit, Tropical Audubon Executive Director Laura Reynolds gave up and walked away. Reynolds had hoped to talk about worsening conditions in Florida Bay, where at least 40,000 acres of dead seagrass are raising concerns about an algae bloom. Second on her list was sea rise and the district's efforts to analyze aging flood control structures not designed to deal with a six to 12-inch rise projected over the next 15 years.

"I was trying to give them a heads up and provide them with important data and input," Reynolds later texted. "I drove all the way up there and he could not even give me time to bring Miami-Dade issues to the public hearing."

Drew Martin, conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Loxahatchee Group and a regular speaker, said the board needs to hear from the public.

"I don’t think the public has taken up that much of your time at most meetings," he said.

Tabitha Cale, an Everglades policy analyst for the National Audubon Society, called the decision "really frustrating and disappointing to see from a state agency."

O'Keefe said he was willing to reconsider the policy if any "robust" issues warrant longer comments.

"Nothing is set in stone and I’m going to look at how our resources are managed and time is managed."

December 09, 2015

Florida environmental groups say utilities have slowed petitioning for solar choice amendment


Dec. 31 is a critical date for groups pushing constitutional amendments to submit petitions if they want to make the ballot. Right now, Floridians for Solar Choice is far from hitting the 683,149-signature threshold to appear before voters in November.

Still, some of the groups supporting the amendment say they're optimistic.

"We are within striking distance of qualifying," said John Hedrick, president of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, on Wednesday.

The latest information from the Division of Elections shows that the solar choice group has 253,497 signatures and hasn't hit the minimum requirements in any of the state's 27 congressional districts. (They'll need 8 percent of the voters from half the districts.)

Hedrick and Kim Ross, president of ReThink Energy Florida, said Wednesday that they think the amendment's slow pace is due to a competing solar energy initiative backed largely by the state's major utility companies, including Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy.

"The people with the other solar petition are out there trying to confuse," Ross said. If not for the other amendment, she's confident they would already have passed the threshold.

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