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.

Continue reading "Florida environmental groups say utilities have slowed petitioning for solar choice amendment" »

December 03, 2015

Judge rejects attempts by Legislature to dismiss lawsuit against them over Amendment 1

Land and water MHA Tallahassee judge on Thursday rejected attempts by the Florida Legislature to dismiss a lawsuit accusing lawmakers of violating the constitution by misspending $237 million in money in Amendment 1 funds intended for water and land conservation.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds ruled from the bench that the lawsuit filed by the the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and the Sierra Club could continue.

But he dismissed a second prong of their complaint which attempted to have the court compel Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to shift funds from the general revenue fund into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to replace the errant spending.

Florida voters approved Amendment 1 in November 2014, setting aside 33 percent of the proceeds from the real estate documentary stamp tax go into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to protect fragile wetlands, springs and other environmentally sensitive areas.

But challengers say that legislators stripped $237 million of those funds to pay for other projects not intended by voters and they want the court to call them on it now to prevent repeating the mistake in the next budget year. The funds from documentary stamps on land transactions are expected to reach $740 million next year.

Continue reading "Judge rejects attempts by Legislature to dismiss lawsuit against them over Amendment 1" »

Fracking bill inches forward despite opposition

Fracking keeler

The three-year effort to make it easier for oil and gas companies to bring the controversial drilling technologies known as fracking to the state is making headway in the Florida House, despite opposition from environmentalists and local governments.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday voted 9-3 for the bill (HB 191) by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Sebring. A companion bill has not yet had a hearing in the Senate.

The proposal would establish new regulations over fracking, remove the ability of local governments to write local ordinances, and require state regulators to conduct a $1 million, one-year study to determine what impact the chemicals used in the process would have on the state drinking water supply before the rules are written 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. Unlike last year, the measure does not include a new public records exemption for the chemicals used in the process but continues to allow companies to shield the names of the chemicals under the trade secrets law.

At issue is a process that involves shooting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and acid into rock formations to release oil and gas trapped in the bedrock, known as acidization. Rodrigues has tried and failed for three years to pass a similar bill.

Continue reading "Fracking bill inches forward despite opposition" »

Just don't call it climate change in Tallahassee

Miami beach flood


KEY WEST -- Climate change is still a dirty word in Tallahassee.

On the last day of a three-day Key West summit on climate change in South Florida, local lawmakers said they are chipping away at problems tied to rising sea levels and a host of ills linked to a warming planet, as long as they call it something else.

"You’re not allowed to talk about climate change. I don’t think that’s literally the policy, but because of the environment, you're not allowed to openly engage," said State Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat.

Rodriguez, along with State Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, said in addressing woes projected for the state - from declining coral reefs to a six to 12-inch rise in South Florida seas in the next 15 years - they struggle to delicately describe it as something else. Finding money for projects, they say, is easier than changing policy. Just don't mention the dreaded C words.

"Everyday we’re seeing people accept things that I didn’t think they would," Jacobs said. "Who would have thought Republicans would be for passing marijuana?"

Continue reading "Just don't call it climate change in Tallahassee" »

December 01, 2015

Obama on climate change in Miami: 'Fish are swimming through the middle of the streets'

Obama France Climate Countdown@PatriciaMazzei

President Barack Obama once again used Miami as an example of a place already feeling the effects of climate change, giving reporters Tuesday a somewhat exaggerated example about the city's high tides showing the costs of letting seas continue to rise.

"I think that as the science around climate change is more accepted, as people start realizing that even today you can put a price on the damage that climate change is doing -- you know, you go down to Miami and when it's flooding at high tide on a sunny day and fish are swimming through the middle of the streets -- you know, that there's a cost to that," Obama said at the Paris climate talks.

While Miami Beach has certainly suffered from sunny-day floods during high tides, recent reports about fish swimming in the street have come from further north in Broward County and are far from widespread. No one's pulling out their fishing rods on the road.

WSVN-FOX 7 reported in September that a mullet was spotted swimming in Fort Lauderdale. A member of the Miami Herald and WLRN radio's Public Insight Network reported in October that she saw fish in the streets of Hollywood during a king tide.

Former Vice President Al Gore told the public radio show The Takeaway last week: "I was in Miami last month and fish from the ocean were swimming on some of the streets on a sunny day because it was a high tide. In Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, many other places -- that happens regularly." "Regularly" sounds a like a bit of a stretch.

Obama referenced Miami last year when he spoke about climate change to the United Nations. "Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods in high tide," he said then. 

--with Jenny Staletovich

Photo credit: Evan Vucci, Associated Press

November 23, 2015

Gov. Scott wants more staffing cuts in health, environment


For the fifth year in a row, Gov. Rick Scott is asking for big job cuts to state agencies responsible for health care and the environment.

In his budget priorities released Monday, Scott asks the Legislature to eliminate a net of 718 jobs in the Department of Health and 152 in the Department of Environmental Protection.

All told, if the Legislature honors Scott’s request, the Department of Health will have shrunk by a fifth — more than 3,400 jobs eliminated — since Scott’s first budget in 2011-2012. More than 1,500 of those are in the last two years.

By and large, the cuts are expected to be for positions funded by the Legislature that have not been filled by Scott's agencies. About 200 jobs are expected to be connected to the transitioning of a health care plan for kids to be run by private insurers. Many of those could be filled by state workers who could be reassigned into other open jobs.

That means few workers are expected to lose their jobs. But it also means jobs for which the Legislature has set aside money are not being filled.

Scott is asking to eliminate more than 500 jobs in county health departments, which are charged with serving low-income people across the state. Last year, the governor asked for 758 health department jobs to be cut. Lawmakers got rid of an additional 55.

Last year, Scott’s proposal asked to cut funding for nutritionists who advise poor families, health counselors and family support workers, among other jobs in clinics across the state.

A list of which specific positions are expected to be eliminated has not been made available.

In the Department of Environmental Protection, most of the job cuts are likely to be empty positions, as well. Under the governor’s plan, most of them come from the state parks.

It is important to note that the governor’s recommended budget is only a suggestion. State lawmakers negotiate the nearly $80 billion state budget, and Scott has the power to veto items.

Still, lawmakers often make changes prioritized by the governor and his agencies. Scott this year asked each state agency to identify 5 percent of their jobs that could be cut.

Continue reading "Gov. Scott wants more staffing cuts in health, environment" »

November 18, 2015

Despite calls for his ouster, DEP chief retains senators' support

Gov. Rick Scott's chief environmental regulator, Jon Steverson, won a vote of confidence Wednesday from senators who rejected calls from the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters and others that he be ousted from his $150,000-a-year job.

Steverson, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, is one of several state agency heads who was not confirmed by the full Senate in 2015. If he's not confirmed in the 2016 session, he'll have to resign, but it appears that won't be a problem, despite an ongoing controversy over Steverson's plans to study expanding commercial activity in state parks, such as hunting and timber harvesting. Scott and the Cabinet confirmed Steverson's reappointment in August.

"I'm here to tell you unequivocally today that (state parks) are not for sale," Steverson told senators, testifying under oath. "I'm not looking to surplus parks. I'm not looking to commercialize parks. And I'm not looking to ruin the park visitor experience."

He said he wants to improve management practices in state parks and use the private sector to do that, and he noted that commercial timber practices have been going on in more than 34 state parks since 2005, "long before I got here."  He vowed that any change to existing park plans will be throughly vetted through a public planning process.

"I can assure you, no one will be firing high-powered rifles on Honeymoon Island," Steverson said. The popular state park in the North Pinellas County city of Dunedin is in the district of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said recently that allowing hunting in state parks is a "disaster waiting to happen."

David Cullen of the Sierra Club of Florida urged the Senate to deny Steverson's confirmation, saying: "He would subvert the fundamental purpose of managing our state parks for the enjoyment of all citizens to one of economic development for the few. Floridians do not want hunting, cattle grazing or timber harvesting in their state parks."

Debra Harrison Rumberger of the League of Women Voters told senators that "our parks are not for profit. Not for plunder." She testified that "the morale of park volunteers is almost as low as that of DEP employees."

The Republican-controlled Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee confirmed Steverson on a 7 to 1 vote, with Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, voting no. Another Democrat, Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, voted to confirm Steverson.

November 06, 2015

Florida Senate candidate pens letter to state rep who dismissed sea-level rise 'speculation'


Andrew Korge, the Miami Democrat running for the Florida Senate, seized Friday on comments made earlier in the week by a Republican state lawmaker who questioned the existence of climate change.

Korge, son of Democratic fundraiser Chris Korge, penned a letter to Rep. Ben Albritton of Wauchula, who said in an interview with Politico Florida: "I don't understand sea level rise, global warming -- this whole discussion."

"We want to be very careful of course in providing speculation or personal opinion on something that may be out 5, 10, 15 or 30 years from now, and not building concrete ideas or concrete decisions around this table on something that might be speculation," added Albritton, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

Korge, who is vying for the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis of Coral Gables, begged to differ, underscoring political differences in Florida not just over ideology but also over geography. Wauchula is landlocked, about 70 miles southeast of Tampa.

"I encourage the entire legislature to go online and look at pictures of sea level rise in south Florida," Korge wrote. "After seeing the pictures, I encourage you and your colleagues to come visit south Florida during the next king tide so you can see the massive amount of flooding and sea level rise that is jeopardizing Florida's future and our children's future.

"I will gladly serve as your tour guide, free of charge. Once you see the flooding with your own eyes, you will finally know that sea level rise is far more than 'speculation.'"