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.

Continue reading "Judge dismisses challenge to toxins in water rule; Martin County accuses DEP of threats" »

Competing demands crowd Zika money



WASHINGTON Turns out, Zika isn’t the only urgent problem that needs federal funds fast.

Florida lawmakers pushing to get $1.1 billion for Zika prevention and research into a rapidly evolving broader appropriations bill are competing with members of Congress from across the country who want their needs addressed.

On his second day in Washington to push for Zika funding, Gov. Rick Scott met with members of Congress from the state who briefed him on the rapidly evolving negotiations over federal spending.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s jousting with other panel members seeking vital funding for their districts and states.

Lawmakers from Louisiana want billions for flood relief. Congressmen from Michigan want millions to clean contaminated drinking water. Others are pushing for more money for veterans’ healthcare.

“Florida’s not the only state with urgent needs,” Diaz-Balart told reporters after he and other Florida lawmakers met with Scott.

The governor said that Florida can’t wait any longer to receive federal aid to help with treating the almost 800 people in the state infected with the virus and preventing it from spreading further.

“We need help, and we need help now,” Scott said.

Scott criticized Sen. Bill Nelson for joining other Democrats in having voted down earlier Zika bills because they contained extraneous provisions related to abortion, Planned Parenthood and the federal health insurance law.

Scott’s criticism drew a rebuke from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fellow Republican from Miami.

“We don’t need to be calling people out,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Sen. Nelson has been trying to help get Zika funding.”

Beyond the competition among different funding needs, there was disagreement on Capitol Hill over how much time the omnibus spending bill, called a Continuing Resolution, should cover going forward.

Appropriators sought a short-term measure that would keep the government operating into December. Some conservatives wanted it to be funded until March. President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress were pushing for a bill to cover the entire next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1 and lasting through Sept. 30, 2017.

Video credit: Ken Cedeno, McClatchy



August 25, 2016

Rubio raps FEMA over algae blooms

Senate 2016 Rubio_Ordo (1)-082516


Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the Obama administration for again declining to issue a federal disaster declaration in response to toxic algae in Florida's waterways.

"Even though the end to this disaster is not in sight, the President is telling our state we are on our own," the Miami Republican said Thursday in a statement.

Barack Obama did not appear to be involved in the decision. In a brief letter earlier Thursday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate rejected Gov. Rick Scott's appeal of his agency's earlier denial of extra money to help fight the algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee discharges intended to protect its aging dike.

"After a thorough review of all information contained in your initial request and appeal, we reaffirm our original findings that supplemental federal assistance under the Stafford Act is not appropriate for this event," Fugate wrote to Scott. "Therefore, I must inform you that your appeal for an emergency declaration is denied."

The thick algae blooms look like guacamole and smell bad. The algae has fouled Treasure Coast waterways fed by Lake Okeechobee.

"The Administration has chosen yet again to turn a blind eye to the livelihoods of Floridians who are affected by this toxic algae," Rubio said.

For more on Rubio's response:

Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article86989367.html#storylink=cpy


Message from South Florida water managers: Don't make us mad

SFWMD InterlandiIf you want to keep a low profile, don't disagree with the South Florida Water Management District, or ask for its email list.

That's what Lisa Interlandi, a lawyer with the nonprofit Everglades Law Center, and other environmental advocates have learned in the last few months as they have become the target of email blasts by the state agency.

The latest email was issued Monday to the more than 5,000 addresses on the district's email list. With a subject head labeled "Your privacy," the agency gave out Interlandi's email address and then announced she had done what anyone in Florida is entitled to do: submit a records request seeking SFWMD's email distribution list.

"As you may know, such email lists and addresses are commercial commodities that are often bought and sold,'' the agency wrote. It cited no examples. "The law prohibits SFWMD from asking about the intended use for the information. Any concern you may have about a potential invasion of privacy is understandable."

Interlandi said the suggestion that she wanted to sell the list was “absurd.”

“It's a public record. It has no value. Anyone who asks for it can get it for free,’’ she said. Instead, she said she wanted the list after watching the water management district increasingly use hostile news releases to target critics of the agency and she thought having the list could be helpful if anyone wanted to "counter the attacks."

Randy Smith, spokesman for the SFWMD, said Thursday the agency never before had “received a mass public records demand for an email address list” and called the request “completely out of the ordinary.”

“Persons having entrusted their email addresses to the state have every right to know that their information has been obtained by a third party without their consent,’’ he said.

Most other state agencies include a standard disclosure on the bottom of agency emails remainding people that Florida has a broad public records law and most written communication to or from state officials regarding state business -- including all emails -- is considered a public record.

The SFWMD, which is funded by state and local tax dollars and is considered a state agency, does not include such a disclosure when it sends out blast emails to its more than 5,000 recipients. Smith did not answer why. Story here. 

Above: Excerpt from SFWMD Aug. 22 blast email


We asked the district to explain the policy and decisions surrounding it. Here are our questions and its answers:

Continue reading "Message from South Florida water managers: Don't make us mad" »

August 15, 2016

Environmentalist's remarks rile water managers who attack with tax talking points

Old World climbing fernIn a press release proclaiming that South Florida residents should "Get the Facts," the South Florida Water Management District moved from neutral regulator to attack dog Monday using a press release to criticize Audubon of Florida for disagreeing with the district's decision to rollback property taxes instead of paying for invasive species control in the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge.

Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper appeared before the governing board at its meeting last week and urged it to use money from reserve funds to address what district officials say is an emergency situation in which an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern is threatening to collapse the tree canopy.

"It is absolutely an emergency, but you have the resources,'' Draper told the governing board. "And it is your land. Fund it."

He added that if the district chooses not to use the money in its reserves, the board could also "change your mind about rolling back the millage" rate and use the increase in property tax collections, generated by the increase in property values, to pay for the emergency. 

"It is not an appropriate or smart strategy to say to Congress, which is cutting its budget and struggling with a federal deficit, to spend that money when you are not willing to increase the amount of money you are spending to control that,'' he said. 

SFWMD executive director Pete Antonacci replied. He said the district has spent $2.3 million to control the invasive plant, also known as Lygodium microphyllum"Money that you are under no obligation to spend and still we have not seen our federal colleagues to do something similar,'' he said.

Draper's remarks hit a nerve. Rather than direct the blame at the federal government, which the district says is violating a provision in the 2002 management agreement that requires it to control exotic plants, the SFWMD used its press release to turn the focus on taxes, and blast Draper for suggesting the state shouldn't wait for the federal government. 

"Audubon Florida is asking the SFWMD Governing Board to raise taxes to make up for the federal government's failure to control an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern in the Refuge,'' the release said. 

Taxes have been one of the most important messages coming out of the district under Gov. Rick Scott. Last year, as property values rose another $21 million in the district, the former head of the SFWMD, Blake Guillory, proposed ending the practice of cutting back taxes and leaving the tax rate alone to keep the district from dipping into reserves to pay for its projects. 

Within two weeks, the board of governors reversed the decision and Guillory was forced to resign. The board replaced him with Scott's general counsel, Antonacci. 

The district's Monday "Get the Facts" did not mention all the facts, including that that Audubon of Florida is supportive of the district but wants it to work with the federal government, that the district wants $25 million over three years from Congress to attack the problem, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an annual budget of $1 million for exotic plant control and has spent another $1 million over the last three years for invasive plant control at the refuge.

Randy Smith, spokesperson for the district, defended the attack on Audubon as "factual information that is pertinent for the taxpayers to understand." 

He said that Draper wanted "to let the federal government slide" and that the press release was signed off on by the district's executive team, including Antonacci.

Draper responded. 

"Enough fighting,'' he said in a statement to the Herald/Times. "State and federal agencies need to work together to solve Florida’s invasive species problems.  The district has money in its budget and under its spending caps to manage its land.  And, yes, taking care of a special place like the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge might be more important than cutting taxes this year."

The attack jarred others in the environmental community. 

"I can't recall a state agency targeting a non-profit organization before,'' said Jonathan Ullman of Sierra Club of South Florida. "A public agency saying that 'Audubon Florida wants to raise your taxes,' is over the line,'' he said, noting that Sierra Club has been a target of a similar attack.

"I don't know who or what is behind 'Just the Facts,' but these emails are entirely inappropriate. The agency has become an attack dog, rather than a public service."

Here is the text of the SFWMD press release: 

Continue reading "Environmentalist's remarks rile water managers who attack with tax talking points" »

August 13, 2016

Rubio doesn't support Negron's plan to buy sugar land for Everglades clean-up 'until we finish' existing projects

Marco Rubio, MHBy @MaryEllen Klas and @JackSuntrup
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Saturday that he is not prepared to support a proposal unveiled this week by incoming Senate President Joe Negron to spend $2.4 billion in state and federal money to buy sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to store water in an attempt to minimize the polluted discharges that have spawned toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Rubio, who was in Brandon Saturday morning for the opening of Republican Party of Florida field office, said he will not support federal funds for more projects until the state and federal government "finish the Central Everglades Planning Project because we're not going to get both."
"We are in a competition with 49 other states for water money and if we keep coming up with new projects, what these other states will say to us is, 'Well, we're not going to fund your programs until you guys down there figure out what you really want','' he said.
The state is waiting for Congress to authorize CEPP, a program that is designed to reduce damaging freshwater releases to the estuaries and send more of that water, cleaned of phosphorus, to the estuaries of Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. The plan would also increase the water supply for municipal, industrial and agricultural users.
But, according to a 2015 report by the University of Florida Water Institute commissioned by the Florida Senate, CEPP "produces only relatively modest improvements in high flow conditions [to offset discharges from Lake Okeechobee] and almost no improvement in very high flow conditions for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee." The report also noted that "even using the most optimistic assumptions, CEPP is not estimated to be complete for a minimum of 24 years."
Negron, R-Stuart, said last week that the state was facing an "environmental emergency" and buying land south of the lake in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area is one of the essential components of solving the dilemma. The increased release of phosphorus-laden discharges from the lake into the estuaries as part of the flood control efforts needed to manage the Everglades' "river of grass" have led to repeated algae blooms over the years, with this year's the worst on record. 
“Everyone who has looked at this issue, who has studied it, agrees we have to have storage south of the lake as a piece of the puzzle and a way to prevent these discharges,'' Negron said at a news conference to announce his proposal on Tuesday.
He also said that he has spoken to Rubio and believes that his proposal is "separate and apart" from the previous calls for the purchase of sugar land. 
"My sense in talking to members of Congress and Sen. Rubio is that everyone understands that the status quo is unacceptable that something has to be done,'' Negron said. He choose not to respond to Rubio's comments Saturday. 
Negron's plan calls for spending $2.4 billion to buy an estimated 60,000 acres of land in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area to store and clean water before releasing it into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. 
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said Negron's plan is important to work in tandem with the Central Everglades Planning Process. 

"CEPP is more about treatment and conveyance.  The Negron proposal is about storage,'' he said Saturday. "CEPP is not designed to take water from the Lake in the wet season, so storage is needed.

Rubio, however, said he was prepared to wait for CEPP to be completed first.
"Let's get that done first. And once we have that done, once the money's in hand, if there's more to be done then we'll continue to work on more. But I think this continued coming up with new projects at the federal level is going to cost us both. We're not going to get either and that would be disastrous. So hopefully we can move forward on that."
Draper said that by delaying the purchase of land for storage, as Rubio suggests, could exacerbate the damage to coastal areas "for at least a decade" instead of improving them.
Draper noted that Congress in 2000 committed to funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan approved by Congress and it calls for the purchase of land to store and clean phosphorus-laden water before releasing it into Everglades National Park. A project in the plan, known as ”EAA reservoirs and storage" calls for storing roughly 120 billion gallons of water, the same as Negron’s proposal, and is scheduled for planning in 2020. While most coastal and Everglades advocates would like to move the schedule up, the South Florida Water Management District has opposed that, Draper said. 
Rubio's comments underscore the difficulty Negron faces in his quest to jump start the debate over buying up sugar land south of the lake as pivotal component of Everglades restoration and algae control. The efforts to buy land in the heart of the EAA for water storage south has been demanded by environmentalists since Congress approved CERP, but efforts to buy the land needed for the project have been sidelined in the face of agriculture and sugar-industry opposition.
Florida sugar cane growers last week raised concerns about Negron's plan, noting that the two parcels he identified could remove from production the supply of available farm land needed to fuel the industry's profit centers, their sugar mills.
Negron, however, has indicated he is open to discussing other areas.
Here is a transcript of Rubio's full statement, when asked if he would support $1.2 billion in federal funding for Negron's proposal:

Continue reading "Rubio doesn't support Negron's plan to buy sugar land for Everglades clean-up 'until we finish' existing projects" »

August 11, 2016

Legal challenge threatens to delay, possibly derail, controversial toxin rule

Water toxinsFlorida environmentalists are hoping that a legal challenge by the Seminole Tribe of Florida will provide the catalyst needed to force state regulators to redo a controversial rule that raises some of the legal toxin levels allowed to be dumped into Florida's drinking waters.

The Seminole Tribe filed its lawsuit Monday with the state Division of Administrative Hearings, arguing that the new Human Health Toxics Criteria Rule, which was narrowly approved by the Environmental Regulation Commission July 26, could endanger the health of the tribe's members.

The lawsuit effectively delays the ability of state regulators to submit the rule to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval. It also gives environmentalists more time to pressure Gov. Rick Scott and state regulators to fix what they consider flaws in the rule that passed by a 3-2 margin.  Download Seminole petition

"This rule will not reach EPA for many months now,'' said Linda Young, president of the Florida Clean Water Network in a letter to supporters late Wednesday. "Our focus will be on getting the public educated on what’s happening and getting people to speak out against increasing toxic chemicals in our waters and the fish we eat."

In the meanwhile, Young said her group are asking that the governor appoint three new commissioners to the seven-member ERC board.

There are currently two vacancies on the board, one intended for a representative of the environmental community and another for a representative of local government. Young said they also want Scott to replace commissioner Craig Varn, the former DEP general counsel who was appointed to the board by Scott in March to serve as a "lay person." 

"He is a plant, a ringer,'' Young said.

Environmentalists believe that had Scott filled the empty posts the commission would have rejected the rule. They are also demanding that more public workshops be held around the state to increase the public's awareness of the controversial proposal. DEP conducted workshops around the state but none were held in the two most populous counties, Miami-Dade and Broward. 

The tribe argued that the rule should not only be invalidated because the agency's decision to move up the scheduled date of the ERC vote violated the state's required 28-day hearing notice, but the tribe also wants the rule rejected because of its potentially adverse effect on the tribe's "subsistence" fishermen who rely on fish from Florida's rivers and streams as a primary source of protein.

The new rule imposes limits on 39 additional toxins and updates the allowed limits on 43 other chemicals dumped into Florida’s rivers, streams and coastal waters, including allowing for higher levels of chemicals with carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. 

"The technical supporting document for this rule is devoid of any consideration of tribal fish consumption rates for subsistence purposes,'' the lawsuit reads. "The Seminole Tribal members’ subsistence consumption rate is over 140 grams of fish per week. That is 5 times greater than the consumption rate used for the proposed rule."

A hearing was quickly set in the case for Sept. 6 and 7 and environmentalists hope the judge will either order the Department of Environmental Protection to reverse the rule, or order a new hearing to revise it.

The rule was scheduled to be submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval but DEP said Thursday it cannot submit the rule until the lawsuit is resolved.