Water-Related News

Wetland protection poised to shift from Corps of Engineers to Florida DEP

Whom would you rather have in charge of protecting Florida's wetlands: the state or the feds?

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign recently approved legislation to shift responsibility for issuing permits for development on wetlands from the Army Corps of Engineers to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The proposed change has been lauded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida League of Cities and Associated Industries of Florida as a way to streamline an often costly and time-consuming stumbling block to development.

"The less we deal with the feds the better," said Joseph A. Catrambone, president and CEO of the Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce. "I'm a big fan of home rule. Taking something out of the feds' hands and giving it to the state isn't exactly home rule, it's a start. The more locally these decisions can be made, the better."

The move has been criticized by a number of environmental groups, who see it as removing one more layer of protection for the environmentally vital wetlands.

"This is one of many terrible anti-environmental bills passed this legislative session," said Richard Baker, head of the Pelican Island Audubon chapter in Indian River County. "There are exceptions, but I'm a fan of keeping environmental rules at the highest governmental level possible as they are less likely to be influenced by local and state political payoffs and special interest groups."

Currently, developers have to get both state and federal "dredge and fill" permits before they can build on wetlands, which play an important role in cleaning water before it reaches estuaries, such as the Indian River Lagoon.

With its staff shrunk by more than 600 employees, from about 3,500 to 2,900 since Scott took office in 2011, DEP doesn't have the personnel to take on the new responsibilities, said Julie Wraithmell, interim executive director of Audubon Florida.

The DEP's 400-plus staffers who work in permitting can handle the "slight workload increase," said Communications Director Lauren Engel.

The agency's existing permit program already is "more expansive" than the Corps', Engel said in an email, "and the vast majority of these programs’ requirements overlap."

DEP reported reviewing more than 7,300 state permits during a budget year that ended in 2016.

Legislature passes bill to boost aquifers with treated sewage: Environmental groups cringe

A bill approved by the Legislature allows utilities to pump treated sewage into Florida’s aquifer system.

Most state residents get their drinking water from the aquifers.

The measure is aimed at boosting the state’s over-tapped aquifers.

But Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club worries it threatens a primary drinking water source with water usually reserved for things like irrigating lawns.

“It can contain high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, hazardous chemicals, things that are above the acceptable standards for drinking water quality.”

The bill’s sponsor says it is safe and that he would be glad to drink the aquifer water after the treated sewage is pumped in.

The Legislature adjourned Sunday. The measure is awaiting the governor’s signature.

“Data is king”: Analysis confirms projections of sea level rise models

No more computer models or projections. Finally – concrete data. A scientific paper published in February may pave the way for a new conversation about rising sea levels using data instead of projections. Gary Mitchum, co-author of the paper and Associate Dean at the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, says the research is more than just another explanation of the effects of global climate change. “In science, data is king,” Mitchum said. “I’ve been telling people I think it’s a game-changer in that the discussion can now switch from is this just an error in the models, the computer models, or is it really in the data?’’ The paper immediately received international attention and went viral within the scientific community. The team of researchers began compiling data in 1993. They released the statistics from satellite altimetry, the measurement of height or altitude from a satellite. “We’re hoping that what this is going to do is allow people to stop worrying about the fact that it’s only the models seeing it, that we actually see it in the data now too and we can have a conversation about what we need to be doing,” Mitchum said. Using data from 25 years of observation, researchers concluded that previous projections by computer models were accurate with 99 percent confidence. The global average sea level rose about 3 millimeters per year. Now, the scientific community has recorded data that confirms these research methods.

Sand Key and Treasure Island beach nourishment public meeting Mar. 28th

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Coastal residents are invited to learn about the upcoming Sand Key and Treasure Island beach nourishment project a public meeting later this month. Pinellas County will host the meeting on Wednesday, March 28, from 6 – 7:30 p.m. at the Indian Shores Municipal Facility, located at 19305 Gulf Blvd. in Indian Shores. The meeting will provide an overview of the project and project timetable.

Representatives from Pinellas County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will answer questions about the project, which is scheduled to begin in mid-April. Sand placement will begin on Treasure Island beaches. The project will then move north to Sand Key at North Redington Beach and continue northward along the beaches to Clearwater.

Beach nourishment benefits the community by providing increased storm protection for property owners and recreational opportunities for beach visitors. It also creates important habitat for shorebirds and nesting sea turtles. The project aligns with Pinellas County’s strategic goal of practicing superior environmental stewardship by preserving and managing environmental lands, beach parks and historical assets.

More manatees died from cold stress this winter

Florida is on pace for another cold, harsh record year for manatee deaths, according to an environmental watchdog group.

Already, 166 manatees have died statewide, state statistics through March 2 show.

Cold spells in January and February claimed 51 manatees statewide this year, including 10 of the 22 deaths in Brevard County.

More than 150 manatees died in just the first seven weeks of 2018, putting Florida on pace to set an annual record for manatee deaths, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit government watchdog group.

“Florida’s manatees are one big freeze away from an ecological disaster and need more, not less, protection,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

High-res mapping of U.S. flood risk triples the population in harm's way

Some 41 million Americans are at risk of seeing their homes flooded in so-called 100-year events, an exposure level perhaps three times higher than the official estimates of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government bodies.

This is the marquee finding, but hardly the only surprise, in a groundbreaking study by researchers in Britain and the United States, including two scientists for The Nature Conservancy who work out of the group’s Minneapolis office.

The results are derived from modeling based on extraordinary advances in high-resolution mapping and supercomputing, in techniques developed at England’s University of Bristol and a nearby research institute called Fathom.

The new modeling has been applied globally for a number of Fathom's public and private clients, and in this instance sought to make improvements over “past attempts to estimate rainfall-driven flood risk across the U.S. [that] either have incomplete coverage, coarse resolution or use overly simplified models of the flooding process.”

Watergoat installed at Lake Maggiore

A floating garbage collection device has been installed on Lake Maggiore near Dell Holmes Park in an effort to protect wildlife and the stop debris from causing damage to the ecosystem.

It’s called a Watergoat and one has already been successful in cleaning up waters in other parts of the Bay Area.

The group Tampa Bay Watch says the floating buoy structures work by capturing trash that flows out of stormwater discharge areas.

The Watergoat is a boom barrier with wildlife-friendly netting designed to keep water flow at a maximum.

Once debris and trash are captured by the Watergoat, it will be scooped up by Tampa Bay Watch staff and volunteers to be properly disposed of.

Tampa Bay Watch says it is always in need of volunteers, especially after heavy rainfalls. For more information, visit www.tampabaywatch.org.

Visit the Watergoat Facebook page »

Court rulings may result in groundwater discharges requiring NPDES permits

If the first two months of 2018 are any indication, events to play out over the rest of the year will have a major impact on what constitutes a “discharge” subject to regulation under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Three cases pending in different federal courts of appeals will address whether releases of pollutants to groundwater hydrologically connected to waters of the United States are subject to the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting requirements of the CWA. In a fourth case, the Ninth Circuit recently weighed in on this issue by articulating a novel, broad rule for determining when a discharge occurs. Spurred on by these developments, and its own admittedly varied positions on this issue over the years, EPA is now seeking comment by May 21 on how to approach this issue.

How the courts and EPA resolve this question will dictate what releases potentially create liability under the CWA. For example, spilling or leaking materials conveyed by groundwater or subsurface flow to surface water may suddenly require NPDES permits. And under the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision, even pollutants washed into navigable waters by sheet flow may be regulated by the CWA. Unlike discrete point source activities traditionally required to obtain NPDES permits, these newly defined “discharges” would be difficult to anticipate—and seek permit coverage for—because these pathways to regulated waters may only be discernible after the fact. The four pending lawsuits represent attempts by citizen plaintiffs in each case to expand NPDES permit liability to unforeseen circumstances.

Nearly every industry has a stake in how EPA and the courts resolve this issue. If EPA and more federal judges follow the Ninth Circuit’s lead by broadly defining discharges regulated by the CWA, many companies and operations will see increased exposure to enforcement actions by citizen groups, EPA, and states authorized to implement the NPDES program. Submitting comments to EPA by May 21 and filing amicus briefs in pending litigation offer timely opportunities to inform how the Agency and judiciary will define the CWA’s reach.

UF Study: To prevent harmful algal blooms, limit nitrogen and phosphorus

GAINESVILLE – Algal blooms can kill fish and harm a lake’s ecosystem, but by reducing two nutrients together such as nitrogen and phosphorus – not just one or the other -- water managers might limit the blooms in lakes and rivers, a new University of Florida study shows.

To come to this conclusion, UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers used an innovative method used in artificial intelligence. The method also will apply to bloom-control research in freshwater ecosystems around the world, UF/IFAS researchers say.

For years, scientists have argued about whether managing both nitrogen and phosphorus – versus managing strictly phosphorus or just nitrogen – would control harmful algal blooms.

For 25 years, Ed Phlips, a UF/IFAS professor in fisheries and aquatic sciences, has worked with scientists at the St. Johns River Water Management District to try to limit nutrients from entering Lake George and imperiling its ecosystem. Blooms in Lake George come from a group of algae that contain many species capable of producing toxins or otherwise disrupting ecosystems, such as creating low oxygen conditions, Phlips said.

“One of the central goals of the research has been identifying the factors that cause frequent harmful algal blooms in the lake, creating a range of challenges for the health and sustainability of key aquatic resources, including fish communities and water for human uses,” Phlips said.

Recently, Rafael Muñoz-Carpena, a UF/IFAS professor of agricultural and biological engineering, led a research team, with his doctoral student Natalie Nelson that reviewed 17 years of data collected by Phlips’ lab from the waters of Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida, behind Lake Okeechobee. Lake George lies in parts of Putnam, Lake, Marion and Volusia counties in central Florida.

Scientists used a new approach called Random Forests Analysis, which tests the sensitivity of bloom-forming species to several environmental conditions in the lake, Muñoz-Carpena said. Those include nutrient levels, water temperatures, light levels and densities of aquatic life that feed from the lake’s bottom.

Researchers found that the major bloom-forming algae in Lake George respond differently to levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, said Phlips.

America's flood insurance chief has a message for all Floridians: You're at risk

If you’re a homeowner in Florida relying on flood zone maps to decide whether to buy insurance, you may want to check your drivers license instead.

"If it says Florida, you need flood insurance," said Roy Wright, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, which covers more policies in Florida than any other state. "It may be more helpful than trying to find the right map."

Hurricane Irma is only the latest case in point, said Wright, who was in Miami Beach on Monday for an insurance conference.

When the massive storm churned toward Florida, hurricane-force winds extended 140 miles, nearly the breadth of the state. As the storm rolled across the Lower Keys, it pushed a storm surge across the islands and continued swamping the coastline as it moved north along Southwest Florida. Homes in Everglades City and Chokoloskee filled with mud up to five feet deep. On Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami, water washed over seawalls and out of the Miami River, swamping the business district.

In Jacksonville, far from the storm’s eye, a confluence of storm surge and high tide swelled the St. John’s River and caused the worst flooding in a century.

The national flood insurance program is now $20 billion in debt, largely because of Irma and other catastrophic storms like Harvey. Wright, during a break in the insurance conference, sat down with the Miami Herald to outline a plan to stabilize a troubled federal program vital to Florida’s real estate industry. It includes ambitious goals to double enrollment over the next five years amid a major makeover that will include more aggressive purchases of re-insurance and catastrophe bonds.

By law, only homes with federally-backed mortgages in high-risk zones are required to have insurance.

Trump directs EPA to begin dismantling clean water rule

President Trump stepped up his attack on federal environmental protections Tuesday, issuing an order directing his administration to begin the long process of rolling back sweeping clean water rules that were enacted by his predecessor.

The order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to set about dismantling the Waters of the United States rule takes aim at one of President Obama’s signature environmental legacies, a far-reaching anti-pollution effort that expanded the authority of regulators over the nation’s waterways and wetlands.

The contentious rule had been fought for years by farmers, ranchers, real estate developers and others, who complained it invited heavy-handed bureaucrats to burden their businesses with onerous restrictions and fines for minor violations.

Obama's EPA argued that such claims were exaggerated and misrepresented the realities of the enforcement process of a rule that promised to create substantially cleaner waterways, and with them healthier habitats for threatened species of wildlife.

St. Pete finishes flooding fix in Shore Acres

ST. PETERSBURG – St. Petersburg has a flooding fix in the works to keep dozens of Shore Acres homes dry.

During rainy season, it's not uncommon to see Denver Park underwater. Last summer, water from the park seeped right into people’s backyards, sending six inches to a foot of water into yards. One downpour, or even afternoon high tide, can put Shore Acres streets underwater. Yet for Josh Cammack and Bill Haight, the flooding comes from behind their homes.

In Denver Park, the land is low and the water sometimes displaces straight into neighbors' yards.

Now, a new solution is in the works: big swales.

“It is a tidal ditch so water comes in and it goes out," explained John Norris of St. Pete's Public Works department.

St. Pete leaders think there used to be a ditch in the park for 50-70 years, but over time, it filled in with grass clippings and other lawn debris. The new swales are much deeper and wider.

“When we get a heavy downpour in the summer this will definitely help," Norris explained.

Neighbors are hopeful, after years of flooding, that this will finally work.

Help nesting sea turtles: keep beaches dark and obstacle-free at night

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Keeping beaches dark at night and free of obstacles will help sea turtles during their nesting season, which begins in Florida on March 1 and lasts through the end of October.

Bright artificial lighting can misdirect and disturb nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings, so beachgoers should avoid using flashlights or cellphones at night. Turning out lights or closing curtains and shades in buildings along the beach after dark will ensure nesting turtles are not disturbed as they come ashore and hatchlings will not become disoriented when they emerge from their nests. Clearing away boats and beach furniture at the end of the day and filling in holes in the sand are also important because turtles can become trapped in furniture and get trapped in holes on the beach.

Florida’s beachfront residents and visitors taking these actions will help conserve the loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles that nest on the state’s coastlines.

“Keeping Florida’s beaches dark and uncluttered at night can help protect sea turtles that return to nest on our beaches,” said Dr. Robbin Trindell, who heads the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) sea turtle management program. “Many agency partners, such as nature centers, marine turtle permit holders and local governments, contribute greatly to sea turtle conservation. But caring beachgoers can also make a significant difference in helping nesting and hatchling sea turtles survive.”

Exactly when sea turtle nesting season starts depends on where you are in Florida. While it begins in March on the Atlantic coast from Brevard through Broward counties, it starts later in the spring, in late April or May, along the northeast Atlantic, the Keys and Gulf coasts.

Wherever you are, other ways to help sea turtles include properly disposing of fishing line to avoid entanglements, and reporting those that are sick, injured, entangled or dead to the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or #FWC or *FWC on a cellphone.

Purchasing a “Helping Sea Turtles Survive” External Website Florida license plate at Buyaplate.com External Website contributes to sea turtle research, rescue and conservation efforts. People also can donate $5 and receive an FWC sea turtle decal.

Go to MyFWC.com/SeaTurtle for more information on Florida’s sea turtles, and click on “Research,” then “Nesting” for more data on sea turtle nesting.

Daylight Savings Time starts Mar. 11th - Check your sprinkler timer

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The Southwest Florida Water Management District (District) is reminding residents to check the timers on their irrigation system controllers this weekend, which is the beginning of Daylight Saving Time.

Saturday night is when we will turn our clocks ahead one hour. The time change is also a good time to make sure irrigation system timers are set correctly to ensure that the systems operate consistently with year-round water conservation measures.

All 16 counties throughout the District’s boundaries are now on year-round water conservation measures, with lawn watering limited to twice-per-week unless your city or county has a different schedule or stricter hours. Local governments maintaining once-per-week watering by local ordinance include Hernando, Pasco and Sarasota counties.

Know and follow your local watering restrictions, but don’t water just because it’s your day. Irrigate your lawn when it shows signs of stress from lack of water. Pay attention to signs of stressed grass:

  • Grass blades are folded in half lengthwise on at least one-third of your yard.
  • Grass blades appear blue-gray.
  • Grass blades do not spring back, leaving footprints on the lawn for several minutes after walking on it.

For additional information about water conservation, please visit the District’s website at WaterMatters.org/Conservation.

Military on front line of battle with sea level rise

Politicians in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. may choose to ignore the potential menace of sea level rise, but the United States military doesn’t have that luxury.

With nearly 562,000 installations on 4,800 sites scattered across the globe, America’s armed forces rely heavily on safe, secure infrastructure, free from outside threats. The Pentagon has come to recognize sea level rise as a direct threat to the 1,774 of their sites that occupy 95,471 miles of the world’s coastline, a threat that could change the course of armed service history.

“The Department of Defense pays attention to climate change and sea level rise because we have to think of stability in regions where we operate as we pay attention to what our future missions might be,” said John Conger, who served as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment. “It’s happening and we’re going to have to deal with it.” “How are we going to deal with it?” Conger asked.

This year, for the first time, the Secretary of Defense is conducting a military-wide climate change/sea level rise threat assessment.

Each of the five branches of service will be required to provide a list of its 10 most threatened installations and suggestions for mitigating against whatever dangers exist, said Conger, now a senior policy advisor for the Center for Climate and Security.

Stone crab fishery could be challenged by ocean acidification, study suggests

The first study on Florida stone crabs and ocean acidification was published this month by a Mote Marine Laboratory scientist and offers clues for relieving environmental stress on these tasty and economically valuable crabs.

The study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology provides the first evidence that stone crab embryos develop more slowly and fewer eggs hatch to larvae (babies) in controlled laboratory systems mimicking ocean acidification (OA) — a chemically induced decrease in ocean water pH at global to local levels that is being driven by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

News media can request a PDF copy of the study by contacting Hayley Rutger: 941-374-0081, hrutger@mote.org. The impact of OA to marine and estuarine species and habitats is worsened when combined with the impacts of nutrient-rich coastal runoff, sewage water inputs and loss of wetlands due to coastal development. Some coastal habitats in Florida are experiencing seasonal declines in pH three times faster than the rate of OA anticipated for global oceans by the end of the century.

Most stone crab fishing occurs in coastal habitats susceptible to OA along with other potential stressors including reduced oxygen levels and harmful algal blooms. The stone crab industry — centered along west Florida — was valued in 2015 at $36.7 million, but since 2000 the average annual commercial harvest has declined by about 25 percent.

Mote scientists are studying stone crabs under various environmental conditions, starting with acidified water, to help resource managers sustain this critical fishery.

Tampa Bay Watch announces new half-day eco-tours

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"A Day on the Bay" is the name of a new half-day estuary introduction and kayak eco-tour to be offered by Tampa Bay Watch. The first tours will be offered on March 27, 28, & 29 from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. The tour begins with a brief orientation about the Tampa Bay estuary and Tampa Bay Watch and is followed by a kayak trip briefing. Participants will then accompany trained staff in Tampa Bay Watch's tandem kayaks for an exploration of all the unique habitats the bay has to offer, including lush seagrass beds, mangrove forests, and a local bird rookery.

The cost of the program for Tampa Bay Watch members is $20 and $25 for the public. Tampa Bay Watch members can contact Ian Pike (727-867-8166 ext. 249) for the membership discount code to be used during online registration.

To read all about the program and register, visit the link below.

Mystery disease killing Florida's only coral reef

Off the coast of Southeast Florida, a mysterious new disease is killing coral reefs, turning them white and leaving nothing but a skeleton behind.

More than half of the state’s 330-year-old Coral Reef Tract, which stretches across 175 miles in the Florida Keys, is infected with the disease. It’s called “white syndrome” by scientists because white stripes or spots cover the coral, and it was discovered in fall 2014.

Throughout 2017, the disease spread to a point where half the coral at some sites were affected, even some that had been considered the most resilient and important for reef building, according to a newsletter by the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative, which helps raise awareness about Florida’s reefs.

The causes of the disease are still unknown, though researchers believe it may be due to a combination of factors, including water quality, said Ana Zangroniz, a Miami-Dade-based University of Florida Florida Sea Grant agent.

Coral reefs are important hotspots for many fish, producing almost one-third of the world’s marine fish species, despite covering only 1 percent of the ocean floor. Invertebrates such as jellyfish, lobster and crabs, fish, and sea turtles all rely on coral reefs for food, shelter or both, Zangroniz said.

U.S. Supreme Court rejects challenge to EPA water regulation

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away a challenge led by states and environmental groups to an Environmental Protection Agency regulation that lets government agencies transfer water between different bodies, such as rivers and lakes, without needing to protect against pollution.

The nine justices left in place a lower court ruling upholding the EPA’s “water transfers rule,” issued in 2008 by Republican former President George W. Bush’s administration, that exempted such transfers from a national water discharge program aimed at curbing pollution.

Under the landmark Clean Water Act, permits are required for the “discharge of any pollutant” into “navigable waters.” Opponents of the EPA rule said water transfers can pollute otherwise pristine water bodies and should require permits.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled that the EPA had acted reasonably in 2008 in adopting the rule over the objections of environmental groups.

A coalition of seven states led by New York and environmental groups led by Riverkeeper Inc appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

The appeals court overturned a 2014 ruling by a federal judge in New York who ordered the agency to go back to the drawing board on one aspect of the 2008 regulation, which exempts transfers from the national water discharge permit program that is administered by the EPA.

Some local government entities, such as the South Florida Water Management District and New York City, supported the regulation in part because obtaining permits and staying compliant is costly. They said no permits should be required because water is merely being transferred from one place to another and pollutants are not being added.

Business interests that depend on government-funded water management systems also supported the rule.

Federal wetlands protections threatened by bill advancing in Florida legislature

A Florida Senate committee, Wednesday, advanced a bill (SB 1402) which aims to place a longstanding federal program that protects wetlands through the Clean Water Act under state control.

Right now, under the federal Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds permitting authority when it comes to proposed developments on environmentally sensitive wetlands in Florida. This designation is known as “Dredge and Fill Permitting Authority” under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

However, a companion bills moving rapidly in both chambers of the Florida Legislature would put such decisions in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Bill sponsor, Sen. David Simmons, R-Logwood, said that if approved by the EPA, the legislation would eliminate a redundancy in the development permitting process for freshwater wetlands.

“This is permitted by federal law so that the state can administer, without duplication, with federal law itself, the Section 404 permits, but the actual implementation of this and the execution of this will be done as if the DEP is acting as the Corps of Engineers, and will be done in accordance with the requirements of federal law,” said Sen. Simmons. “There will be no lessening of the requirements for these dredge permits.”

Environmental advocates oppose the bill over concerns that it will fast track permitting for development of wetlands. They point to the importance of Florida’s wetland ecosystems as critical habitat for endangered species, as a source of fresh drinking water, and as a vital aspect to Florida’s natural infrastructure in the event of hurricanes and floods. One acre of wetlands can store about one million gallons of water. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Amber Crooks said she’s also concerned about the DEP’s ability to take on the additional work.