Audubon Florida
The Advocate
The Florida Legislature’s special session ended this week with four bills headed to Governor DeSantis’ desk for signature. This package of bills set policy for COVID-19 vaccine or test requirements for larger businesses and local governments.

Committee meetings leading up to the 2022 Regular Session will resume after Thanksgiving. Outside of the Special Session this week, there were still developments relating to public policy on environmental appropriations, roads, restoration, and more. 
The sun setting over an Everglades landscape, with low trees and water in the foreground.
Governor DeSantis Announces Environmental Appropriation Priorities
On Tuesday, Governor DeSantis released preliminary details of his budget request for FY 2022-23.  DeSantis proposed more than $1.5 billion in funding for his environmental priorities, which include more than $660 million for Everglades restoration projects and $300 million for the protection of water resources. With this request, Governor DeSantis exceeds his goal to commit $2.5 billion toward environmental funding over four years. As a complement to last year’s historic funding ($600 million) to enhance the state’s resiliency, the Governor’s budget request includes $550 million for more resiliency projects to protect Florida from the effects of sea level rise, storms, and flooding.

The Governor has until December 12 to announce his state spending plan.
 
Florida Scrub-Jay against a tree background. Photo: John Wolaver.
Florida Department of Transportation Begins New Study of Possible Northern Turnpike Extension
Audubon Florida has historically opposed unnecessary and environmentally destructive routes for the Turnpike Extension since the 1970s.  Earlier proposals were rejected as too damaging to environmental resources and not economically feasible in the early 1980s and again in 1999. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has now scheduled two public meetings in early December to begin the process of a new Project Development and Environment (PD&E) study for the Northern Turnpike Extension.

Senate Bill 100 directed FDOT to conduct a study and prepare a report “summarizing the status of” the PD&E study to be presented to the Governor and Legislature by December 31, 2022. The study will evaluate alternative routes for the extension in a northwestward direction from the current Turnpike terminus at I-75 in Wildwood, to either US-19 in Levy County, or to connect with the Suncoast Parkway future route and US-19 in Citrus County north of Crystal River. The Legislature also directed FDOT to incorporate the considerations of the former M-CORES Task Force recommendations in any planning for a future Turnpike Extension.

Four tentative corridors for the study have been placed on the map, two of which generally follow previously proposed and rejected corridors north and west through Sumter, Marion, and Levy Counties. These northern routes are subject to the same objections as previously stated by Audubon, the Marion and Levy County Commissions, as well as the City of Dunnellon Commission. The northern two routes would slice through key prime agricultural and equestrian industry areas and conservation land tracts including the Cross Florida Greenway, Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, and the eastern edge of the Goethe State Forest. The two northern routes are also contrary to recommendations of the M-CORES Task Force, which stated that the Northern Turnpike Extension should not traverse the Cross Florida Greenway into Marion County, and should not invade important conservation land tracts.

Two of the four corridors stay on the very southern edge of Marion County (south of the Cross Florida Greenway), and largely cross through Sumter and Citrus Counties. These would appear to have comparatively less environmental impact, following existing major power line right-of-ways and potentially minimizing contact with conservation lands. The need for the roads and their economic viability, however, are not yet clear.Audubon will continue to engage with FDOT and stakeholders to ensure that the PD&E accurately represents the costs, demonstrated need (or lack thereof), and required environmental considerations for this extension. This study informs the state’s decision of whether or not to pursue a turnpike extension at a future date.

A link to the FDOT environmental evaluation process and maps can be found here.

The meetings will be held:


December 7, 2021, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., College of Central Florida, 15390 US-19, Chiefland, FL 32626

December 9, 2021, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., College of Central Florida, 3800 S. Lecanto Highway, Lecanto, FL 34461

Meetings can be attended either in person, virtually, or by telephone. You can register for the meetings here.
Florida Scrub-Jay. Photo: John Wolaver.
Snail Kite in flight. Photo: Bob Branham/Audubon Photography Awards.
Army Corps of Engineers Releases Final LOSOM Model
This week, the Army Corps of Engineers announced the framework for the new plan for Lake Okeechobee water management called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). This new lake schedule will replace the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule from 2008 and determines when and how much water from the lake goes east, west, or south. Some of the highlights of the new schedule include eliminating harmful lake releases to the St. Lucie estuary under normal conditions, improving the timing and distribution of beneficial flows to the Caloosahatchee estuary while decreasing most harmful releases to the estuary, increasing freshwater flows south through Everglades National Park, and reducing damaging dry downs to Lake Okeechobee.

These are welcome changes to the lake schedule, but unfortunately, they come with a price. Lake Okeechobee will regularly be held at much deeper levels which could significantly compromise lake ecology. Likewise, the estuaries still will experience harmfully high flows during significant weather events. These tradeoffs occur because there remains no silver bullet to solve these problems until more lake and Everglades restoration projects are completed.

The Lake Okeechobee schedule may be released, but our work is not done. Going forward, Audubon is working closely with partners to evaluate the available data and impacts in order to make more comprehensive recommendations to the Corps for the lake schedule in the coming year.

Notably, Audubon is recommending that the Corps build in operational flexibility to allow the agency some discretion in mitigating harm based on real-time environmental conditions or events. We are also advocating for consideration of “recovery modes” for natural resources that have experienced harm as a result of the lake schedule.
Snail Kite in flight. Photo: Bob Branham/Audubon Photography Awards.
graphic showing a picture of the Rodman Dam.
The Ocklawaha Survey Results Are In!
You made your voices heard when public comment on the future of the Kirkpatrick/Rodman Dam and the Ocklawaha River opened.  

More than 10,000 people responded to the survey, and more than 85% of respondents want to remove the dam to restore the free-flowing river.

This is an opportune time for restoration to proceed; the project addresses five key environmental needs identified by the legislature and eliminates public safety concerns from an aging dam in need of maintenance.

Audubon remains committed to seeing the damage of the Cross Florida Barge Canal project undone. Working with a diverse coalition of partners, we continue to speak with stakeholders in the region and leadership from the state to move this important restoration project forward.
 
Wood Stork tucking its head onto its chest. Photo: Karen Mason/Audubon Photography Awards.
Oil Drilling Permit Near Big Cypress Denied Over Environmental Concerns
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection rejected an application for a proposed exploratory oil well in Immokalee. In their denial, the agency cited concerns about potential impacts to water resources, wildlife, wetlands, and drinking water supplies in the area.

The proposed oil well would have been located in Collier County within the Big Cypress watershed and just a stone’s throw from important conservation lands like Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. These conservation lands are of critical importance to the Greater Everglades Ecosystem and are home to listed species like the Florida panther, gopher tortoise, and ghost orchid

“Immokalee is not at all like coastal cities — it is a predominately agricultural community that relies on farmworkers from Haiti, Central America, and Mexico to support the farming economy. If an oil well were proposed elsewhere in the state, there would be an uproar of opposition. This is clearly an equity issue and we have to not only stand in defense of the environment, but of the Immokalee community.”— Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida Policy Associate for Audubon Florida and Audubon Western Everglades.
Wood Stork. Photo: Karen Mason/Audubon Photography Awards.
Roseate Spoonbill landing on a branch, sky in the background. Photo: Ken Lassman/ Audubon Photography Awards.
2020 Wading Bird Study Reveals Mixed Success for Iconic Florida Species
Are restoration and conservation efforts improving the health of the Everglades? The birds tell us.

White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbills had a successful nesting season in 2020, but many other species failed when an early-arriving rainy season impacted the availability of food for chicks. Years of monitoring show us that in recent decades, wading bird nesting in South Florida has increased but is still a fraction of the target for a restored Everglades ecosystem.

Wading birds are important indicators of ecosystem health in the River of Grass, and each year the South Florida Water Management District – in collaboration with Audubon Florida and other partners – synthesizes wading bird survey data from across the Everglades to examine system-wide trends. When wading birds nest in large numbers and fledge chicks most years, they tell us that our efforts to improve the hydrology of South Florida ecosystems are successful.

Click here to read the full report.
Roseate Spoonbill. Photo: Ken Lassman/ Audubon Photography Awards.
Tricolored Heron standing in shallow, calm water.
Audubon Florida Climate and Energy News Roundup
This week we share news about new electric vehicle charging stations for Florida, how clean energy can save lives, a $1 billion pledge to protect Florida from effects of climate change, and more!

Click here to read more.
Tricolored Heron.
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