Audubon Florida
The Advocate
On April 30, the 2021 Legislative Session officially came to a close. From conservation funding to new water rules, a repeal of M-CORES to coastal resiliency, the 2021 Session tackled a host of environmental issues. Audubon Florida’s policy team worked overtime to stay on top of worrisome bills, collaborate with elected officials on bill language and amendments, and keep our stakeholders up-to-date.

While we were happy to see high levels of funding for water and Everglades restoration, coastal resiliency and planning, as well as land conservation, we know that we cannot fix problems with funding alone. We need legislative action that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels, reduces nutrients flowing into our waterways, discourages urban sprawl, and more.

Still, we take this moment to celebrate the good bills that made it across the finish line, and the bad bills we stopped in their tracks. Read on for details, and thank YOU for lending your voice to make these successes possible.
Black-necked Stilt. Photo: William Dix/Audubon Photography Awards.
Budget Delivers High Levels of Environmental Funding
Black-necked Stilt. Photo: William Dix/Audubon Photography Awards.

The Florida Legislature’s proposed budget is $101 billion and includes $6.7 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. In January, Governor Ron DeSantis originally proposed a $96.6 billion budget, while the Senate's first proposal was $95 billion and the House’s proposal was $97 billion.

As we began the 2021 Session, we worried that the effects of the pandemic would reduce funds available for critical wildlife and environmental priorities. Using federal relief dollars towards land conservation and resiliency underscores the importance of our environment to Florida’s economic well-being.


A few notable details from the rolled up totals in the table below:

Everglades Restoration - $283.7 million

Programs funded as part of this line item include:

Restoration Strategies - $32 million

Lake Okeechobee - $64 million

C-43 West Basin Reservoir Storage Project - $139.7 million

Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) - $16.5 million*

* this is in addition to $59 million for CERP COVID-19 Relief Funds


Northern Everglades - $71.4 million

Water 

Water quality projects for Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries - $50 million

Septic to Sewer Upgrade Incentive for Springs Priority Focus Areas - $10 million

Wastewater Grant Program - $116 million*

Springs Restoration - $50 million**

* this is in addition to $500 million from COVID-19 Relief Funds
** this is in addition to $25 million from COVID-19 Relief Funds


See our summary of the budget below.
budget
Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Paul Brooke / Audubon Photography Awards.
New Water Legislation
DEP Rules Ratifications (HB 1309)

The Florida Chambers ratified two Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rules.

(1) The Biosolids Rule: Regulates the land application of sewage sludge.

(2) Central Florida Water Initiative Rule: Implements strategies to meet water demands that are in excess of the existing traditional groundwater sources and establishes consistent rules and regulations for the three water management districts to implement the results of the Central Florida Water Initiative. DEP had previously stated that water use would have to change in this rapidly growing region if they didn’t want to run out of water for consumption and the environment. Originally in SB 7062 (Sen. Brodeur, R-Lake Mary), this ratification was added to HB 1309 by the Senate.

Unfortunately, DEP agreed to settle with local governments challenging the rule because they were unwilling to limit their water consumption in the interest of protecting water supply. The much weakened rule cuts protections, conservation measures, and necessary permit changes. The result is far less effective than what is desperately needed in this fast growing region of the state.

Closing Mining Loopholes, Foiling Sand Pirates (SB 1194)

Late last year, Audubon raised the alarm that landowners in Lake County have been creating sand mines without environmental permits under the guise of “agricultural operations” and DOT has been using taxpayer dollars to buy the material for road construction. Audubon successfully worked with legislative committee staff to add language to SB 1194 (HB 57) to eliminate the market for this pirate material by requiring all future DOT contractors to provide assurances that any sand or fill material purchased originates from a borrow pit has obtained all the required environmental permits.

All DOT contracts, subcontracts, and purchase orders executed by contractors or subcontractors after July 1, 2021 must include specific requirements for compliance. 

Unfortunately, at the last minute a bad amendment was tacked on to this bill preempting local government control over ports by barring them from regulating commerce in their ports or adding regulations aimed at environmental protection. However, the scope of the preemption is very narrowly tailored to apply to referenda.


Reclaimed Water

SB 64 by Sen. Albritton and HB 263 by Rep. Maggard require domestic wastewater utilities to submit a plan to DEP by November 2021 for eliminating non-beneficial surface water discharges (e.g., treated effluent, reclaimed water, or reuse water) within a five-year time frame.

The bills authorize DEP to establish a potable reuse technical advisory committee and provide that potable reuse projects are eligible for alternative water supply funding. SB 64 requires local governments to offer density bonuses to developers to offset the developers’ capital costs of purchasing and installing residential graywater technologies in proposed or existing developments containing at least 25 residential dwellings. These bills set the initial stages for specifying potable reuse as an alternative water supply.

Currently, Florida law allows reclaimed water – which is treated wastewater – to be used for irrigating golf courses and parks and residential yards. As the state’s population grows, water supply is a focus for local governments because of anticipated demands on water resources.

SB 64 passed both chambers and goes next to the Governor for final action.
Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Paul Brooke / Audubon Photography Awards.
Burrowing Owl. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.
Wins for Habitat Conservation
M-CORES Repeal Ends Turnpike Proposals

The original 2019 M-CORES legislation mandated the construction of 330 miles of new turnpikes through some of Florida’s most sensitive environmental areas and important rural farmland areas, effectively prying them open for future development and sprawl.

An amended Senate Bill 100 by Senator Harrell (R-Stuart), Chair of the Transportation Committee, has repealed the M-CORES mandate. The bill focuses primarily on extension of the Suncoast Parkway to U.S. 19 in Citrus County, then allowing a gradual improvement of U.S. 19 and related roads up to Interstate 10 by 2034. The bill also directs a new study of a northern extension of the Florida Turnpike.

While the bill eliminates the immediate creation of new turnpikes, we know advocates for these routes will try again. And so, Audubon worked diligently to make sure this legislation enshrined in statute the good work of the three M-CORES Task Forces. The new language requires that “The department (of transportation) shall take into consideration the guidance and recommendations of any previous studies or reports relevant to…” future projects, which would include the protective recommendations from the Task Forces.

This new language in the bill will require DOT to at least consider the recommendations of the M-CORES Task Forces, which include some of the most environmentally protective guidelines for highway planning and design ever prescribed in Florida, in the event the turnpikes are proposed again in the future.


Florida Forever 

The Senate and House chambers agreed on $100 million of state funding for Florida Forever, the state’s premiere land conservation program. Additionally, another $300 million in pending federal economic relief funding will be dedicated to Florida Forever acquisitions within the Florida Wildlife Corridor.


This exciting investment will see important acquisitions in an ecological network identified for its habitat value and connectivity, with the transparency and public accountability of the Florida Forever program.

In addition, both committees agreed to spend $500 million of the federal relief funds for septic-to-sewer conversions and $100 million towards the clean-up of the Piney Point disaster. 

Little Wekiva and the Florida Wildlife Corridor

Senate Bill 976, filed by Sen. Brodeur (R- Lake Mary), calls for a study to investigate siltation damage of the Little Wekiva River. Sediment has filled the stretch of the river north of State Road 434, choking the riverbed with invasive plant growth and exacerbating flooding in the area. SB 976 requires the Department of Environmental Protection, in consultation with the St. Johns River Water Management District, Seminole County, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Department of Transportation (DOT), to conduct a study to identify the sources of the sedimentation. Fingers point to DOT’s $2.3 billion, multi-year project to repair Interstate 4 through Orlando. The Little Wekiva River is a stream in the Greater Orlando area, flowing northward as a tributary of the Wekiva River, which later joins the St. Johns River, the longest river in the state of Florida. The Wekiva River and the Little Wekiva River have been designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The bill also recognizes the Florida Wildlife Corridor as an existing physical and geographically defined area consisting of more than 18 million acres of land and creates incentives for conservation and sustainable development within this corridor.  SB 976 acknowledges the importance of ecological connectivity, wildlife corridors, and the protection of functionally connected networks of conservation lands.
Burrowing Owl. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards.
Northern Bobwhite. Photo: John Wolaver.
Energy Legislation
Energy Preemption Bills

HB 0839 by Rep. Fabricio (R-Hialeah) passed with a much improved and narrower scope as the "Express Preemption of Fuel Retailers and Related Transportation Infrastructure." This bill prohibits counties and cities from outlawing gas stations and related transportation infrastructure.

Sen. Hutson, the Senate companion sponsor, emphasized that he was not attempting to stop cities from pursuing clean energy infrastructure but they (cities) cannot prohibit the existing, prevailing vehicle fuel source. Audubon will work to ensure that these bills do not invalidate environmental protections in local comprehensive plans related to land use and transportation energy infrastructure. The bill does not preempt restrictions, ordinances, or other regulations consistent with current allowable uses and restrictions.

HB 919, "Preemption Over Restriction of Utility Services," by Rep. Tomkow (R-Auburndale) restricts cities and counties from enacting and enforcing regulations or prohibitions on the type of fuel sources for energy production from any utilities or fuel service providers that are not owned by the city or county itself. The bill voids all regulations, prohibitions, or restrictions that may have already passed.

This bill as passed will make it more difficult for cities and counties to encourage their utility providers to invest in renewable energy.
Northern Bobwhite. Photo: John Wolaver.
Miami
Climate and Resiliency Become Important Session Theme
Two bills that aim to address the adverse effects of sea level rise and flooding caused by climate change sped through the House and Senate committees and were signed by the Governor. HB 7019 (Rep. Busatta Cabrera, R-Coral Gables) and its Senate companion, SB 1954 (Sen. Rodrigues, R-Estero), create the Resilient Florida Grant Program within the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), authorizing the Department to provide grants to local governments to help combat rising sea levels.

The bill provides $100 million in grant funding (subject to appropriation) to local governments to fund resiliency planning and supports vulnerability assessments and mitigation plans to prepare for the threats of flooding and sea level rise. The bill authorizes counties to enter into agreements to form regional coalitions to plan for the resilience needs of communities and to coordinate intergovernmental solutions. The bill requires DEP to develop a comprehensive statewide flood vulnerability and sea level rise data set by July 2022. By July 1, 2023, DEP must use the data to complete a comprehensive statewide flood vulnerability and sea level rise assessment. The bill also creates the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation within the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. The data would be used to inform a Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience Plan, which would be updated and submitted to the Governor and the Legislature every three years.

A complementary bill, HB 7021, also filed by Rep. Busatta Cabrera (R-Coral Gables), and its Senate companion, SB 2514, filed by Senate Appropriations, guarantees funding for the projects mentioned in HB 7019/SB 1954 by establishing the Resilient Florida Trust Fund within DEP (to be terminated on or before July1, 2025). The trust would also cover the cost to implement the plan, the operation of the grant program, the grants, and the administrative and operational costs of the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation.

So, where are the funds coming from?

While climate change appears to be a bipartisan issue in the legislature this year, the vehicle to fund these programs is not. HB 5401 and SB 2512 will sweep a portion of the money that would go into affordable housing into a wastewater grant program and the resiliency program to address the problems caused by flooding and sea-level rise across the state.

Earlier in April, legislators had agreed to provide $141 million (in 2021) in documentary stamp revenues for affordable housing, based on a new formula with the remaining two-thirds being split equally between the Resilient Florida Trust Fund and the Water Protection and Sustainability Trust Fund.  But after complaints from affordable housing groups, House and Senate leadership increased the apportionment to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to $200 million annually with $111 million going annually each for flooding and septic-to-sewer programs.


Currently, funds from the affordable housing trust fund go to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership and the State Apartment Incentive Loan program, which provide grants to local governments for down payment assistance to qualified new homebuyers, housing repair assistance, and provides developers with an incentive to build low-cost housing. Most legislators were supportive of the state moving forward with much needed resiliency initiatives; several others were not pleased that affordable housing funds would be permanently reduced to pay for the new programs.

In addition, $500 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds have also been set aside towards the Resilient Florida Trust Fund.

 
Miami.
Anhinga. Photo: Richard Schmidt/Audubon Photography Awards.
Troubling Bills That Did Not Make It Through
Big Cypress Basin Management Changes – Died on Second Reading

Sen. Rodrigues (R-Estero) introduced the Big Cypress Basin Bill, SB 406, while the House companion, HB 209, was filed by Rep. Botana (R-Bonita Springs). The bill revised the membership of the Big Cypress Basin governing board; required the South Florida Water Management District to revise the boundaries of the Big Cypress Basin; and required the South Florida Water Management District to redirect distribution of basin ad valorem taxes collected within the Big Cypress Basin to be used for flood control, water quality, and enhancing natural systems projects and maintenance within the counties in which they were collected.


The bill would have reduced ad valorem collections available to the District for restoration projects and narrows the statutory authorized usage of ad valorem funds. South Florida Water Management District governing board members as well as Collier County Commissioners expressed concern that the change could have caused challenges with Everglades funding because south Lee County district tax dollars now go to the district at-large, not the Big Cypress Basin. 

Seagrass Mitigation Banks – Did Not Leave Committee

HB 1335 by Rep. Sirios (R-Merritt Island) and its companion SB 1668 by Sen. A. M. Rodriguez (R-Doral), Seagrass Mitigation Banks, would have authorized the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund to establish seagrass mitigation banks on sovereign submerged lands. The last time this bad idea made it through the Legislature in 2008, Governor Crist vetoed it.

Specifically, Governor Crist raised three concerns in his veto letter: (1) It is not in the public’s interest to authorize the conveyance of sovereign submerged lands for the purpose of creating credits to be sold to facilitate the destruction of seagrass elsewhere; (2) Artificially created seagrass beds, the long-term success of which has not been conclusively established, will result in a net destruction of seagrass beds on sovereign submerged lands; (3) The necessary exclusion of the public from sovereign submerged lands used as mitigation banks will contravene the public’s common law navigation rights and the “sovereign submerged lands doctrine” embedded in the Florida Constitution.

Audubon was glad committee Chair Jen Bradley did not schedule the bill for a hearing, blocking its path to the Senate floor. Seagrass beds are environmentally valuable and so hard to restore or recreate that they should not be destroyed in the first place.
Anhinga. Photo: Richard Schmidt/Audubon Photography Awards.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Photo: Kyle Fritz/Audubon Photography Awards.
Audubon Remains Concerned with New Farming Litigation and Growth Management Bill
Farm Protection from Nuisance Suits

Governor DeSantis signed SB 88 by Sen. Brodeur (R- Lake Mary), legislation that expands farmers’ protection from nuisance suits. The bill, a top priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, protects farmers and farming operations from people who move into rural communities and then file complaints.

The sweeping legislation restricts certain types of civil lawsuits based on farming activities, requires plaintiffs to prove noncompliance with state or federal requirements, and limits who may file nuisance lawsuits against farmers. In addition, plaintiffs must provide clear and convincing evidence the farming activity does not comply with state and federal environmental laws, regulations, or best management practices. This may make it harder for Floridians to address agricultural pollution of wetlands and waterways.

Growth Management Bill Includes Duplicative Property Rights

HB 59, by Representative McClain (R-Belleview), requires local governments to include a duplicative property rights element in their comprehensive plans to ensure that private property rights are considered in local decision-making. Florida already enjoys strong private property rights protections through the Florida Constitution and the Bert Harris Act. The bill has additional provisions related to development agreements, municipal annexation, and local government development orders. It is not likely that these provisions will make private property rights more secure, but they will make it harder for local governments to do their work of managing smart growth.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Photo: Kyle Fritz/Audubon Photography Awards.
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