Florida Seeks Authority over State Wetlands

Published August 1, 2006

Buoyed by water quality that has dramatically improved under the Jeb Bush administration and an efficient wetlands permitting process, Florida officials are seeking greater autonomy from the federal government in regulating the state’s wetlands.

Dispelling any fears that removal of federal oversight would signal a lessening of state concern for its waterways, Gov. Bush (R) on June 15 signed into law a bill imposing more stringent pollution standards on stormwater runoff and expanding the state’s definition of wetlands subject to environmental regulation.

The process was set in motion on April 26, when Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Secretary Colleen Castille sent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Director Jimmy Palmer a letter seeking “advice on what further actions the state would need to take” to assume sole responsibility for issuing wetlands development permits for small parcels of land. Currently, persons seeking to develop wetlands on their private property must get approval from both the state of Florida and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Slow Federal Process

To gain permission to develop wetlands, private property owners in Florida must show federal and state environmental officials that the development benefits the public interest and has no significant environmental impact. Floridians are seeking to remove federal oversight because the Army Corps has no deadline within which to approve or reject permit applications, often taking more than a year to render a decision.

Florida state law, by contrast, mandates a decision by FDEP within 90 days of a permit request, and state records show FDEP averages just 44 days to render a decision. The Army Corps attributes its longer wait times to a shortage of staff.

While the Army Corps typically takes much longer than FDEP to process permit requests, there is rarely disagreement between the state and federal regulators. Between 1999 and 2003, the Army Corps rejected only one permit the state had approved.

Bipartisan Support

Castille’s letter seeks to implement a consensus of the Florida state legislature, which approved a bill in June 2005 seeking sole oversight of the wetlands permitting process for small parcels of land. The legislation seeks state autonomy regarding parcels of land less than 10 acres.

In signing the bill last year, Bush explained the legislation is needed for the “elimination of unnecessary, duplicative, and overburdensome regulations.”

Cleaner State Water

The June pollution standards legislation added an exclamation point to new state programs designed to improve Florida’s water quality. On February 9 state officials began construction of three treatment facilities to reduce phosphorus runoff into the Everglades. The new facilities will treat 6,000 acres of wetlands, increasing the total number of currently treated wetlands by more than 15 percent.

The new facilities will add to the significant clean water improvements already attained by the Jeb Bush administration. “Last year, the treatment wetlands [ones already being treated by existing facilities] prevented more than 189 metric tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades,” the Environmental News Service reported on February 10. “Together with improved farming practices, construction wetlands [ones designed and constructed by people to mitigate adverse environmental impacts] have prevented 2,178 tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades–cutting phosphorus loads to the giant marsh last year by 71 percent.”

Other programs already approved by the Jeb Bush administration “will restore 100,000 acres of wetlands, expand water treatment areas by close to 29,000 acres, and provide 418,000 acre-feet of additional water storage for Everglades restoration a decade ahead of schedule,” the Environmental News Service story observed.

“The state has made great strides since Gov. Lawton Chiles conceded the state’s failure to enforce water-quality standards and entered into the 1992 settlement agreement with the federal government to restore water quality in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and Everglades National Park,” Castille wrote in a May 22 letter to the Miami Herald. “Today, Florida is in compliance with state and federal law and has fulfilled all of its legal commitments to date under the court order.”

A State Issue

Daniel Simmons, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Natural Resources Task Force, said, “Wetlands within state boundaries are state issues and should be dealt with by the states themselves.

“Not only does the federal government have no power to regulate wetlands that are not navigable waters, but there is certainly no need in the case of Florida to do so,” Simmons added. “Florida is clearly taking the lead in ensuring clean water and responding to citizen inquiries in an efficient and responsible manner.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.