February 14, 2017

Despite $100 million in legal bills, Florida loses water wars argument; special master rules for Georgia

Apalachicola Patrick FarrellA special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Florida Tuesday and in favor of Georgia in the 16-year water war over water rights to the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin.

The ruling by Ralph Lancaster, Jr., a civil attorney from Portland, Maine, concluded that Florida failed to prove that new limits on Georgia’s water consumption were needed. He made the ruling after five weeks of hearings last summer and more than $98 million in attorneys fees spent on the case by the state of Florida.

“Florida has failed to show that a consumption cap will afford adequate relief,”  Lancaster said in a 70-page ruling.In his ruling, Lancaster’s suggested that Florida made a serious tactical error by not including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a party to the lawsuit.

“Without the Corps as a party, the Court cannot order the Corps to take any particular action,” Lancaster wrote. 

The Florida House of Representatives  has called into question the cost of the litigation as authorized by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Office of the Attorney General. It found that in the last two years, after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master to resolve the dispute, the state spent $54.4 million on legal help from four law firms. 

According to a spreadsheet obtained by the Herald/Times, the numbers showed that the lead lawyers, Washington-based Latham Watkins, would be paid $35.9 million between 2015 and 2017.

Foley Lardner, the Florida firm where Steverson’s predecessor, Hershel Vinyard, works and where Steverson is now headed, would be paid $2.6 million over the same time. Two other firms also were paid lesser amounts: $1 million to Blankenau and $966,000 to Carlton.

The records also show that Latham Watkins charged the state for 32 to 35 full-time legal staff for 40 hours a week over four months. The firm also charged significantly more than the other firms for lawyers of comparable experience.

Photo: Oyster fisherman on the Appalachicola River by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald




January 23, 2017

Dana Young proposes 'tightly drafted' bill to ban fracking in Florida

Dana YoungA Republican state senator who faced a competitive election in which opponents accused her of being pro-fracking has filed legislation to ban the controversial practice in Florida.

Sen. Dana Young of Tampa, the former House Republican leader elected to the Senate in November, wants the state to ban "advanced well stimulation treatment," specifically hydraulic fracturing, acid fracturing and matrix acidizing which use high pressure techniques to inject water into rock formations to extract oil and gas.

Young, who practices environmental and land use law, last year voted for a House bill to regulate and authorize the technique in Florida beginning in 2017 after a study. She told the Herald/Times the proposal this year was not so much a change of heart as an opportunity to better understand what voters want and expect in Florida. 

"I'm absolutely in favor of energy independence and in favor of harnessing our natural resources safely but Florida is unique,'' she said Monday. "I believe, and it is the belief of most Floridians, that our fragile limestone geology and fragile environment as a whole is incompatible with fracking of any kind. So it's a balancing act."

During her campaign, the left-leaning advocacy Florida Strong accused Young of benefiting from the proceeds of her husband's investment firm, which has had stakes in companies that profit from the oil industry. Young dismissed the claims as distortions of her record.

Under the bill proposed last year, the state would impose a two-year moratorium on fracking while the Department of Environmental Protection would study the impact of hydraulic fracturing and similar technologies on Florida and propose rules to regulate it. The rules would have had to come back to the Legislature for ratification.

While proponents of the measure, like Young, focused on the two-year ban as the key feature of the bill, environmentalists focused on the parts that prohibited local governments from imposing their own bans or regulations, shielded from public disclosure the specific list of chemicals used in the process and ultimately opened the door to fracking.

Environmentalists cited the state’s fragile water table, the latent impact the bill could have on public health, and urged lawmakers to pass a bill proposed by Democrats to ban fracking instead. The bill didn't get a hearing in either of the Republican-led chambers.

Young, who faced Democrat Bob Buesing and no-party candidates Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove during the election, said her views changed "as the fracking issue became front and center" in the campaign.
"I learned more and it became an important issue, not only for my region but for our whole state,'' she said. "I'm fulfilling my contract with the voters to get it passed."
Young acknowledged that the oil and gas industry does not support her bill but believes that her measure will get widespread support from legislators and environmentalists. A companion measure in the state House is being co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, who also faced a competitive election in November, and House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa.
"It's very, very tightly drafted to not impact traditional oil and gas extraction processes,'' Young said. "Some people may want to do away with that but this legislation is not designed to adversely impact the traditional oil and gas operations in our state." 
Photo credit Tampa Bay Times: Dana Young at a press conference before her election. She said opponents distorted her position on fracking in Florida. 

Trujillo: Florida's water wars legals bills 'a runaway train.' Did they force Steverson out?

Jon SteversonFlorida's top environmental regulator abruptly resigned Friday, two days after House budget officials expressed disapproval of his management of a legal contract that had ballooned by more than $54.4 million in the last two years over a water fight with Georgia.

Jon Steverson, who has led the Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Rick Scott for the last two years, will step down effective Feb. 3 and go to work for Foley Lardner, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday.

Foley Lardner is one of the four outside law firms hired by the state to handle its 16-year lawsuit against Georgia over water rights to the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin. Florida sued Georgia in 2013 claiming the state’s excessive use of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers was endangering Florida’s oyster industry and harming the economy of North Florida.

Since 2001, the state has been billed $97.8 million on the water wars, according to an analysis by the House Appropriations Committee, and has spent $71.9 million to date.

Nearly $40 million of it was spent in the last two years after Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and the court appointed a special master to resolve the dispute. Story here. 

January 10, 2017

Rubio backs Trump's choice of Pruitt, a climate-change denier, to head EPA

Supreme Court Water Rights

Sen. Marco Rubio said Tuesday he backs President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who has been an outspoken denier of climate change, a critical issue threatening Florida.

"The next EPA administrator should be someone who understands the important balance between protecting our air, water and environment without needlessly hurting workers with excessive regulations," Rubio said in a statement that made no mention of climate change. "Attorney General Pruitt ‎is the right choice to bring a much-needed dose of common sense to a department where overzealous, out-of-touch regulators have been allowed to operate seemingly unchecked. I look forward to working with him on the many important environmental issues facing Florida."

Pruitt has been a leading opponent of the EPA's Clean Power Plan to limit fossil-fuel emissions from power plants -- a key step to slow climate change. 

Former Gov. Jeb Bush has also praised Pruitt. Trump, who will be inaugurated in 10 days, said last month "nobody really knows" if climate change is real -- though scientists agree it is.

Photo credit: Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

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