January 06, 2017

Water managers oppose, House sends mixed signals over Negron's Everglades plan

Algae Emergency Floridaby @MaryEllenKlas

Should Florida buy land to save water?

That simple question is shaping up to be a complicated and politically tangled debate this legislative session as the state’s powerful sugar industry ramps up against the widening reach of water-weary local communities in an age of climate change and sea level rise.

On one side is Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has made the issue a top priority when lawmakers meet in regular session beginning March 7. After a summer of watching toxic algae blooms poison local waterways, Negron decided that nearly 20 years is long enough to complete the state plan to build a water-cleansing reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to bring more clean water to South Florida and reduce the polluted discharges from the lake that spoiled the estuaries in his district on the east coast, and the Caloosahatchee River estuary on the west coast.

“All I’m doing is saying let’s accelerate what we already know we need to do because you can’t continue to destroy oyster beds, destroy the sea grasses we spent millions of dollars planting, and have communities where there are literally signs saying ‘Due to outbreak of poisonous bacteria, you can’t swim in the water,’ ” Negron told the Herald/Times. Story here. 

December 08, 2016

Curbelo makes National Geographic TV debut on climate change


U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami got plenty of love Wednesday night as a Republican willing to take action in Congress to combat climate change.

Curbelo was prominently featured on a "Years of Living Dangerously" episode on the National Geographic channel that featured environmental activists' efforts to get congressional action.

"Why can't there be more Republicans like this guy?" asked actor Bradley Whitford, the episode's host. He's a liberal activist best known for his role as Josh Lyman in NBC's former TV series "The West Wing," and he's praised Curbelo on national TV in the past, to promote the NatGeo series.

The episode showed, among other things, a meeting of a small "climate change" caucus in Congress -- which means other South Florida representatives got some air time, too. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, the Democrat who created the caucus with Curbelo, got a speaking role, and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, also appeared on screen.

Here are two clips cut by Curbelo's office. Watch the full episode (number seven) here.

November 18, 2016

Handicapping the impact of a Trump presidency on Florida's environment

Trump sunrise
via @jenstaletovich

At a rally in Collier County at the end of October, a day after he unveiled his “contract” with America, then-candidate Donald Trump rallied his supporters with talk of crooked Hillary, a rigged election system and the “real group of losers” running the country. Then, in the middle of 47-minute speech, he turned to a teleprompter and devoted just over a minute to Florida’s longest-running and most frustrating environmental conflict: Everglades restoration.

“A Trump administration will also work alongside you to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades, which I just flew over. I just flew over and let me tell you when you fly over the Everglades and you look at those gators and you look at those water moccasins, you say I better have a good helicopter.”

The soon-to-be 45th president of the United States went on to assure the crowd that dwindling water supplies in Florida, where he owns three golf courses, would be protected.

“Our plan will also help you upgrade water and wastewater — and you know you have a huge problem with wastewater — so that the Florida aquifer is pure and safe from pollution. We have to do it. We will also repair the Herbert Hoover dike in Lake Okeechobee, a lake I’m very familiar with.”

To weary Floridians, he was far from the first politician to make such promises. Thirty years after Lawton Chiles vowed to clean up the marshes, the Everglades remain as threatened as ever, going from too wet to too dry, the coasts repeatedly hammered by algae outbreaks and Florida Bay slammed by massive seagrass die-offs. Water quality and quantity in the state face increasing pressure from sea rise and growing demand.

But Trump is the first developer to occupy the White House. Everglades restoration, the largest environmental project ever undertaken in the nation’s history, is essentially a giant infrastructure job. And many of the solutions to climate change in South Florida come down to construction: raising roads, fortifying coastlines and updating flood controls.

Could Trump finally be the solution?

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

October 27, 2016

West Wing's Josh Lyman calls Curbelo one of 'real heroes' on climate change


Actor Bradley Whitford, best known for his portrayal of Josh Lyman on NBC's "The West Wing," was probably not on Carlos Curbelo's list of political campaign surrogates.

Yet there was Whitford, who's known to be a Democratic activist, being interviewed on NBC's "Today Show" Thursday morning -- and mentioning the Miami Republican congressman by name.

Whitford was plugging his work for National Geographic's "Years of Living Dangerously" series. An upcoming episode titled "Gathering Storm" features Whitford exploring the Citizens' Climate Lobby's efforts to get Congress to act on the threat of climate change.

"My particular thing was dealing with Republicans who have been resistant to acknowledge the science on climate change," Whitford told "Today." "And there's some real heroes in Congress: Carlos Curbelo from the 26th district in Florida has shown that he really wants to work on this."

Curbelo and his Republican allies have been campaigning on his climate-change stance -- a key issue in his Westchester-to-Key West district. His Democratic challenger is former Rep. Joe Garcia.



October 24, 2016

Everglades Foundation launches bus tour to gather 'an army of supporters' for its land-buy initiative

NoworNevergladesCan the Florida Everglades become a political weapon? The Everglades Foundation, a non-profit that is banned from campaigning, hopes to find out this week as it launches a 12-day bus tour to drum up public support for its No. 1 priority: the purchase of sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to be used for water cleansing marshes.

With a shrink-wrapped bus emblazoned with the words NoworNeverglades, the organization is hoping to seize on the public's election-year focus and crisscross the state to win support for the post-election policy -- Everglades restoration, said Eric Eikenberg, director of the Everglades Foundation.

"It's that season and everybody is focused on the election,'' he said. "People are tired of toxic algae in the water and we are calling attention to the role clean water, and our water supply has on economics and tourism."

The foundation is urging people to sign the #NoworNeverglades Declaration in which people "affirm their support for added water storage in the [Everglades Agricultural Area] to help alleviate damaging discharges into coastal estuaries, increase the flow of clean fresh water to the Everglades and Florida Bay, and protect the drinking water supply for 6 million Floridians." 

The bus will begin its tour Wednesday at Gramps Restaurant in Miami's Wynwood district and the make its way north, through South and Central Florida. Events include stops at the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, Zoo Miami, the Naples Zoo, Bass Pro Shops the Audubon Assembly Conference and even the Halloween on the Mile event in Coral Gables.

The bus will be stopping at football games along the way -- from the University of South Florida's match with Navy on Friday to the Miami Dolphins v. Jets game on Nov. 6. The foundation will be collecting the names and social media contacts of its supporters as it prepares to enlist legislative support for the land buy in the March legislative session, Eikenberg said. 

"We want an army of people to weigh in on buying the land when the Legislature starts and decides whether to get the money in the budget,'' he said. "Everybody wants to protect the Everglades. The question is, how are they actually going to do it?" 

Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, as said he is going to make buying the land, using money already available through environmental preservation funds, a top priority. 

The sugar industry, however, has vigorously opposed the land buy as unnecessary and considers it an attempt to undercut the future of the industry in Florida. 

“Surely there are better ways to advocate for the environment than driving a fossil fuel-powered luxury bus 12 days across South Florida while spreading half-truths about how our water system operates and how to manage Lake Okeechobee discharges,'' said Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar spokesperson. 

"These activists would be better off meeting with the farmers in the EAA that have worked to reduce phosphorus by an average 55 percent over the last two decades and see the hard-working people of the Glades they are trying to ignore. They should also stop to consult with the water quality experts and scientists at the South Florida Water Management District, Department of Environmental Protection, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who have thoroughly discredited the ‘buy the land, send the water south’ bumper sticker science.”

October 11, 2016

Gore blasts 'phony-baloney' solar Amendment 1 on Florida ballot

Hik12 Hillary Gore NEW PPP

Calling it a "phony-baloney" ballot initiative, former Vice President Al Gore asked Floridians to vote "No" on Amendment 1 when they fill out their Nov. 8 ballots.

"They are trying to cloud the truth by putting forward a phony-baloney initiative that sounds like it protects solar," Gore said. "It doesn't protect solar."

Fuel-burning utility companies are trying to "fool" voters, he added, and "just kill the solar infrastructure" in the state. 

"No!" yelled the crowd at Miami Dade College's Kendall Campus.

Gore was campaigning with Hillary Clinton on behalf of her presidential campaign. But he devoted several minutes to the down-ballot amendment and laid bare his frustration with the power companies.

"Our democracy has been hacked," he said, accusing the utilities of having spent "more than $20 million to pull the wool over your eyes -- and $20 million may buy a lot of wool."

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, Miami Herald staff

October 06, 2016

Sunshine State survey: Economy and environment are the major concerns of Floridians

Sunshine State threats of Florida's economy

A summer of water woes and uneasiness about the state’s economic future have led Floridians to identify the economy and the environment as their top concerns as they head to Election Day, according to the 2016 Sunshine State Survey released by the University of South Florida on Thursday..

The annual poll, done by the University of South Florida and Nielsen Surveys, found that 63 percent of all Florida households say they experience some financial stress, 28 percent blame their economic insecurity on low-paying jobs, and a slim majority of Floridians — 51 percent — would support a $15 state minimum wage.

“You cannot under-estimate how household finances affect everything,” said Susan MacManus, USF professor of political science who conducted the survey. “You can see it in just about every poll, and no matter who wins the election they are going to have to deal with this problem because it is not just registered voters who are feeling this way. Every race from top to the bottom is going to feel it.”

The results are the first in a series of reports to be released by USF in an effort to guide state and local leaders to focus on issues relevant to Floridians. The survey of 1,248 Florida residents from Sept. 1 to Sept. 19 was done using live telephone interviews of cell phone and landline phone numbers. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.77 percentage points.

While 24 percent of those surveyed cited the economy as their top concern, the issues next in line were the environment (13 percent), crime and policing (11 percent), education and schools (9 percent), government officials (5 percent), healthcare (5 percent), and immigration (5 percent), the survey found.

Water-related problems are the top environmental concern of 34 percent of those surveyed, with the highest intensity focus from residents in the Palm Beach and Naples regions — areas hardest hit by the toxic algae outbreaks earlier this year, the survey found.

Another 20 percent cited the loss of natural lands for wildlife and 18 percent, including a majority of those surveyed in the Miami-Dade and Fort Lauderdale region, say that climate change is the greatest economic peril the state faces.

“The most important thing this survey shows is that people still have a lot of anxiety about their household finances and, as long as people are concerned about that, it affects every other dimension of their lives,” MacManus said.

The survey shows that the “the economy has not fully recovered,” she said, although there are pockets of improvement. Financial stress is greatest among households with a child, low-income earners, and Floridians without a college degree, the survey showed. The proportion of Floridians feeling stress, however, fell 8 percent since last year to 64 percent.

When asked what factors are the greatest threat to Florida’s economy, 28 percent identified the lack of well-paying jobs, the survey found. Another 24 percent cited government waste, taxes and regulations, and 18 percent identified illegal immigration. Those top three concerns encompassed 70 percent of all responses.

Those most concerned about the lack of well-paying jobs are Floridians with a child at home, racial and ethnic minorities, and low- to mid-income households, the report found. White respondents are the most concerned about illegal immigration, and younger Floridians see an inadequate education system as the biggest threat to the state’s economy.

The focus on the environment as a top concern behind the economy should not surprise anyone who has lived in Florida, MacManus said.

“Florida’s economy has long been closely linked to its environmental assets,” she said.

But the survey found that Florida residents are also not happy with the way government is handling sinkholes, especially in the wake of reports that the state waited three weeks to notify residents that a massive sinkhole had drained pollutants into the Floridan✔ Aquifer from the Mosaic phosphate processing plant near the Hillsborough-Polk county line and was potentially contaminating the drinking water supply.

More than half of the respondents rated the state’s performance as fair or poor, with residents of the Tampa Bay and Miami/Fort Lauderdale areas most disapproving of the state’s efforts to address sinkholes (26 percent and 23 percent, respectively).

“Sinkholes are unsettling because it starts to affect insurance rates and housing and development decisions,” MacManus said. “It also leaves people with an enormous sense of uncertainty.”

MacManus also warned that these uncertainties could drive the election – from the presidential race to local offices.

“I don’t think you can underestimate the impact,” she said. “People in Florida get the fact there is a relationship between our state’s economy and the environment and, every time there is a major event – like Zika or a hurricane – it creates more stress.”



September 16, 2016

Will sprawl doom Florida? Projecting into the future in 2070

Florida in 2070via @JenStaletovich

Over the next 50 years, Florida’s swelling population is expected to gobble up another 15 percent — or 5 million acres — of the state’s disappearing farms, forests and unprotected green space, according to a new study released Thursday.

With the population expected to reach nearly 34 million by 2070, University of Florida researchers partnered with 1000 Friends of Florida and the state Department of Agriculture to look at growth trends and urban sprawl in a state powered by land booms. What they found was startling: In Central Florida, where the population is expected to surge along the I-4 corridor, half the region will be developed if no more land is protected. Agriculture and other green spaces shrink by nearly 2.4 million acres. That could dramatically increase the flow of urban pollution into Lake Okeechobee.

In rapidly expanding South Florida, another 1.1 million acres would be lost.

But with smarter planning that concentrates growth around urban cores, researchers found they could save up to 1.5 million acres. Story here. 

September 15, 2016

Everglades restoration plan passes senate

Everglades aerial (2)

by @jenstaletovich

Everglades restoration took a step forward Thursday when the U.S. Senate passed a massive waterworks bill that includes a plan aimed at fixing the overlooked heart of the vast wetlands.

In 94-3 vote, senators approved the Water Resources Development Act, which includes about $2 billion for the Central Everglades Planning Project. The project, launched in 2011 to speed up restoration and focus efforts on central wetlands critical to moving fresh water south into Florida Bay, got a big assist in the spring when Sen. Jim Inhofe vowed to throw his weight behind it. The powerful chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, remembered for being the only no vote opposing the original comprehensive restoration plan in 2000, said he changed his mind after Sen. Marco Rubio convinced the work was necessary.

The vote comes after a brutal winter for the region. Record rain forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repeatedly release dirty water from Lake Okeechobee into coastal estuaries, triggering a massive algae bloom along the Treasure Coast.

The WRDA still has to pass the House, no small hurdle, which has not yet scheduled a vote. However, including $220 million in emergency funding to address the water crisis in Flint is drawing support that may help push it through.

"It addresses a lot of big ticket items that have gotten a ton of attention this year," said Julie Hill-Gabriel, deputy director of policy for Audubon Florida.

Hill-Gabriel was hopeful the House schedules a vote this year on the plan. Two years ago, the plan stalled when the Corps, which oversees work, balked at approving it in time for that year's WRDA bill.



"We’re hopeful it will happen this year," Hill-Gabriel said. "Whether it’s next week or the lame duck session, we hope the House steps up and gets it done."



September 14, 2016

Judge dismisses challenge to toxins in water rule; Martin County accuses DEP of threats

Water toxinsOpponents hoping to overturn a controversial rule to allow higher concentrations of toxic chemicals into Florida’s water were dealt a setback Tuesday when an administrative law judge dismissed a series of complaints because they missed the deadline for filing the challenge.

The groups, which included the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the City of Miami, Martin County and the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, must now decide if they will challenge the ruling at the District Court of Appeal.

The Seminole Tribe was the first to file the challenge to the new new Human Health Toxics Criteria Rule, which allows for dozens of toxins, including carcinogens, to be allowed in greater concentrations into Florida’s rivers and streams.

The rule, which increases the acceptable levels of more than two dozen known carcinogens and decreases levels for 13 currently regulated chemicals, was approved on a 3-2 vote by the Environmental Regulation Commission in July and the groups filed the challenge at the Division of Administrative Hearings, the state-run court that litigates state rules.

The Tribe argued that the rule could endanger the health of tribal members because it fails to take into account the harm they could do to the health of the tribe’s subsistence fishermen who rely on fish from Florida’s rivers and streams as a primary source of protein.

The City of Miami argued the standard “loosens restrictions on permissible levels of carcinogens in Florida surface waters with absolutely no justification for the need for the increased levels of the toxins nor the increased health risks to Florida citizens.”

Martin County argued that the new rules threatened the public’s safety, and that the rule should be invalidated because the Department of Environmental Protection didn’t follow its own process.

Only the Pulp and Paper Association, whose members rely on discharging chemical-laden water into Florida rivers, argued that the rule was too strict. All parties said the agency violated the proper procedure for establishing the rules.

Judge Bram D.E. Canter, however, disagreed and dismissed the challenges on the grounds that they had not been raised in a timely petition.

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