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Audubon Florida
The Advocate
In the final committee week before the Florida Legislature begins its 2023 session, committees heard updates on the Clean Waterways Act, Florida’s five Water Management Districts, FDACS, and so much more. On the ground, Audubon staff celebrated the groundbreaking of the EAA Reservoir, which will clean and store water before sending it south to the Everglades.
From left to right, Audubon's Paul Gray, Florida State Senator Joe Negron, sponsor of 2017's SB 10 that advanced EAA reservoir construction, and Audubon's Kelly Cox
EAA Reservoir Groundbreaking Marks Critical Moment in Everglades Restoration
South of Lake Okeechobee, in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), there will be both a treatment wetland to clean water from Lake Okeechobee and a reservoir to store it. This week, stakeholders gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking of the reservoir, which will hold 78 billion gallons of water and will lower Lake Okeechobee by six inches.

While the South Florida Water Management District is responsible for constructing the 6,500-acre treatment wetland, which began in 2020 and will be completed this year, the Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of building the 240,000-acre-foot reservoir, which has a completion date of 2029.

Audubon applauds the groundbreaking of the reservoir, which will:

- Clean and treat water to send south to restore the Everglades.

- Add freshwater flow that will rebalance salinity levels in Florida Bay.

- Lower water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which will improve the health of this critical ecosystem, the liquid heart of Florida.

- Clean water from Lake Okeechobee, thereby reducing algal blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. This project will reduce harmful discharges to these estuaries by an estimated 55%.

- Recharge the aquifer, supplying clean, fresh water to millions of Floridians.
From left to right, Audubon's Paul Gray, Florida State Senator and past State Senate President Joe Negron, and Audubon's Kelly Cox. Negron was the sponsor of 2017's SB 10 that advanced EAA reservoir construction.
A waterway with a hardened shoreline.
Clean Waterways Act Updates from DEP
On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Senator Anna Maria Rodriguez (R-Doral), convened to hear presentations from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on their recent rulemaking efforts.

Reminder: The Clean Waterways Act

SB 712, the Clean Waterways Act, passed with bipartisan support in 2020 with the goal of improving water quality in Florida. Provisions of the bill required DEP to update rules relating to septic tanks (also called onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems, or OSTDS) as well as update the state’s stormwater permitting rules.

Septic Tanks and Disposal Systems

DEP had three charges to be completed by January 2022:

1) Make it easier to approve new high-performance technology septic tanks that remove more nitrogen and phosphorus; 

2) Reduce barriers to homeowners opting to use these enhanced nutrient-removing systems;

3) Develop new setback distances (clearance from wetlands and waterways) for septic tanks from surface water, groundwater, and wells because past setbacks have been inadequate and harmed water quality.

While the first two charges are moving forward for ratification by the Legislature now, Director of Water Resources Michael Lynch said that DEP is committed to finishing the update of setback distances by June 2023This is a good thing – proper setbacks provide a higher level of protection for our rivers, streams, and wetlands.

Improvements to Stormwater Permitting

DEP reported that the stormwater rule update ready for ratification will require a higher level of treatment and removal through each approved permit. The estimate of the increase in cost to the regulated community of implementing the more protective and scientifically sound updated rule is anticipated at $1.4 billion over a five-year period, covering approximately 14,000 permits.

Urban and agricultural stormwater run-off is the primary cause of high levels of nutrients in our waterways. Starting in 2021, DEP engaged in an extended public process – including convening a Technical Advisory Committee of experts – to provide input into developing this new rule and following through with several webinars and public meetings while drafting the rule.

While the cost to implement the new rule may seem high, billions of dollars have been spent to date to clean up nutrient pollution in our waterbodies –  money that will be saved with clean water.
Photo: Pixabay
Two birds of prey standing next to each other on the ground.
Department of Agriculture Requests Big Bucks for Agricultural Easements, Water Quality Programs, and Staff Raises
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, Chaired by Thad Altman (R-Indialantic), heard a presentation by Deputy Commissioner Derek Buchanan of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), on his agency’s legislative budget request.

What is FDACS?

FDACS has a staff of 3,776 employees with an operating budget of $3.2 billion; its 2023 fiscal year budget request is for $1.8 billion. The two primary goals for the agency are: 1) To modernize the department’s pay and infrastructure, and 2) To preserve and grow agriculture in the state while protecting the environment.

Through a combination of budget requests and a reduction of vacant positions, FDACS plans to establish a minimum base salary of $40,000 for its full-time employees.

FDACS Funding Requests

FDACS requested $574 million for its division of forestry that manages 58 state forests as well as the Babcock Ranch preserve. In addition, the agency is requesting $300 million for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to acquire permanent conservation easements as well as 10 additional staff to assist this growing program.

While funding for land conservation is always a priority for Audubon, it is critical that these easements and land purchases use established criteria and a public process to make acquisition decisions.

Also of note, FDACS is requesting $15 million for nutrient-reducing water retention projects on agricultural lands to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Finally, the agency has requested $10 million for implementing farm-level Best Management Practices (BMP), with an additional ask for 17 new staff members to provide technical assistance and monitoring of BMP implementation. FDACS’ BMP program, housed within the Office of Agriculture and Water Policy, has a vital role in the implementation of DEP’s restoration plans.
Crested Caracara. Photo: Lorraine Minns/Audubon Photography Awards
Sunrise over a causeway
Additional Presentations in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Highlight Indian River Lagoon
Indian River Lagoon

Deputy Secretary Adam Blalock of DEP provided a historical perspective of the Indian River Lagoon as well as a picture of where we are now and where we want to be for this 156-mile estuary that encompasses six counties on the east coast of our state.

Blalock stated that 75% of the salt marsh in this estuary was lost when the dikes were built. Additionally, the estuary is affected by stormwater and wastewater inputs from the Lake Okeechobee and St. Johns River basins.

Solutions to improve the health of the estuary include: eliminating effluent from 40 wastewater treatment facilities that currently discharge to the estuary, removal of nutrient-dense muck that builds up in the inlets, and reenergizing DEP’s three Basin Management Action Plans for the Indian River Lagoon and the Reasonable Assurance Plan for the Mosquito Lagoon. In addition, Governor DeSantis’ recent Executive Order prioritized the Indian River Lagoon for restoration and additional funding to make progress toward meaningful results.
Photo: Pixabay
A bird with short legs walking on the ground.
Water Management Districts Aim to Clean, Store, and Conserve Water
The Water Quality, Supply and Treatment Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, (R- St. Johns), heard presentations from the executive directors of the five Water Management Districts (WMD) across the state. They shared details about their primary charge of water supply and flood control while also highlighting programs and projects unique to their district.

Where did Water Management Districts originate?

In 1972, after advocacy from Audubon and other conservationists, the Florida Legislature passed the Water Resources Act that created Florida’s five modern-day water management districts. The legislation tasked the districts –  along with the Department of Environmental Protection  – with managing water as a public trust on behalf of all the people of Florida. Our water management districts have carried out their charge, diligently trying to balance the water needs of all stakeholders while conserving water for the growing population. In addition, they are faced with managing water and minimizing flooding in our communities as we are faced with intensifying storms and rising seas.

District Highlights
  • The Northwest Florida and the Suwannee WMDs primarily serve rural and agricultural customers and they highlighted the technological improvements in irrigation, water, and fertilizer use that help reduce water use and nutrient runoff.
  • The Southwest Florida WMD highlighted its work in water conservation and the use of reclaimed water. Currently, 16% of the water used within the District comes from reclaimed water. The District utilizes close to 57% of the reclaimed water that is produced and is working towards 75% utilization, a laudable goal considering the pace of population growth in Central Florida.
  • The St. Johns River WMD manages the St. Johns River basin, which is 310 miles long and is the largest river entirely contained within the state. The District’s executive director highlighted their work on environmental resource permits for stormwater, land management of over 615,000 acres of conservation land, and their public-facing data portals.
  • The South Florida Water Management District is the oldest and the largest in the state and was formed to update the Central and South Flood Control plan. This District, together with DEP, FDACS, and the Army Corps of Engineers, manages the world’s largest restoration initiative: Everglades restoration. In addition, this District oversees the development of large stormwater treatment areas on the southeast and the southwest coasts to hold and manage water to minimize harmful discharges to the estuaries.
Clapper Rail. Photo: Jesse Gordon/Audubon Photography Awards
An aerial view of a Florida highway.
More Funding for Florida's SUN Trail Program
In the Senate Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Sen. Doug Broxson (R-Gulf Breeze), SB 106 – sponsored by Sen. Bordeur (R-Sanford) – received unanimous approval.

What is SB 106?

The bill seeks to expand the Florida Shared-Use Nonmotorized (SUN) Trail Program and improve its connectivity with the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor extends from the Keys to the Panhandle and includes nearly 10 million acres of conservation land. The bill increases the annual amount allocated for the SUN Trail Network from $25 million to $50 million and allocates $200 million in nonrecurring funds to the Department of Transportation for the planning, design, and construction of the SUN Trail Network. A House Companion bill, HB 915, was filed last week by Rep. Adam Botana (R-Bonita Springs).
Photo: Pixabay.
A white bird in flight over a foggy lake
Wastewater Grants and Resilient Florida Program Take Center Stage in the Senate Select Committee on Resiliency
On Thursday, the Senate Select Committee on Resiliency, chaired by Senator Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula), convened to learn more about the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) programs on wastewater and resiliency grants and the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) program on Electric Vehicle Infrastructure.

Wastewater Grant Program

Adam Blalock (DEP Deputy Secretary of Ecosystem Restoration) presented an overview of DEP’s Wastewater Grant Program. The Program was created in Senate Bill 712 in 2020 and has appropriated $740 million since its inception. Government entities are invited to apply on DEP’s portal for funding especially if projects are within a basin management action plan or alternative restoration plan which will individually or collectively reduce excessive nutrient pollution. Each grant also requires a minimum of a 50% local match of funds, unless waived by DEP. Projects under the program target conversion of septic tanks to sewer systems and upgrades to ensure better wastewater treatment and nutrient reduction.

Projects within this last cycle included: 33 advanced wastewater treatment upgrades, 93 septic-to-sewer projects targeting more than 34,000 septic systems, and one septic upgrade project that will replace 133 septic tanks with water treatment units. 

Resilient Florida Program

The Resilient Florida Program’s overview by Alex Reed, DEP Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection, was similarly given to the House Agriculture and Natural Resource Appropriations Subcommittee last week. The program focuses on three key features: identifying critical infrastructure and regionally significant assets, inland flooding, and completing statewide vulnerability assessments including needs prioritization. 

To date, the Resilient Florida Program has awarded more than a billion dollars for 263 projects to communities across Florida to address the adaptation and mitigation needed for their critical and regionally significant assets. For more details on the program and grant funding, see last week’s Advocate.

Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

Trey Tillander with the Florida Department of Transportation provided an overview of Electric Vehicle Infrastructure and charging stations and how federal funding will impact the State of Florida. Overall, the program will award Florida $198 million in federal funds to expand its inventory of electric vehicle charging stations and traffic control devices. More details on Tillander’s presentation were summarized in last month’s Advocate.
Great Egret. Photo: Mark Indig/Audubon Photography Awards
Lightning over a roadway
Hurricane Recovery and Resilience
The House Select Committee on Hurricane Resiliency and Recovery, chaired by Michael Grant (R-Port Charlotte), met on Thursday to listen to presentations held by Dr. Wesley Brooks, Chief Resiliency Officer for the State of Florida, and various staff representatives of Florida’s utility and internet companies on hurricane recovery efforts.

Hurricane Recovery and Resiliency Efforts with the Chief Resiliency Officer

In 2021, Governor Ron Desantis appointed Dr. Brooks as the State of Florida’s Chief Resiliency Officer (CRO) as part of Executive Order 1912. The CRO’s position is geared towards preparing Florida for climate change impacts and sea level rise.

Dr. Brooks shared his findings on his travels to all regions within Florida to support local communities and listen to their perspectives on flood vulnerabilities and strategies. Dr. Brooks also emphasized his priority to promote planning and adaptation grants to communities, as part of the Resilient Florida Grant Program. The Program’s approach to supporting local communities in reducing flood vulnerability and enhancing resilience is critical to preserving economic activities and environmental assets.

Dr. Brooks urges policy and decision-makers to protect natural and working landscapes, as they are a critical insurance policy for future growth and potential climate impacts.

Overall, Dr. Brooks believes that utilizing coordinated approaches between the Resilient Florida Program, the Florida Flood Hub, and supporting local communities on the ground will ultimately lead the state to become more resilient.
Photo: Pixabay
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