Audubon Florida
The Advocate
We are well into the second half of the Florida legislative session; key bills have made it past their reference committees – with improvements thanks to your advocacy – and Audubon is working to improve others before a full vote. Elsewhere across the state, we celebrated not one but two major steps forward in Everglades restoration: a groundbreaking at the C-23/24 Stormwater Treatment Area and a ribbon cutting at the Scott Farm Water Project. Budget conferees are expected to be announced and the budget conferencing process will likely begin next week.

The rooftop solar bill is in the House State Administration & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday. If your elected official is voting you will receive an email from us shortly – we need your voice!
 
Black-crowned Night Heron perched in a tree, with leaves in the background. Photo: Cheryl Black.
Problematic Bill Improved for Everglades Restoration, Concerns Remain for the Rural and Family Lands Program
SB 2508, filed by the Senate Appropriations Committee (Chair Sen. Stargel, R-Lakeland), passed the full Senate this week. This conforming bill – as filed – would have negative consequences for Everglades restoration and the state’s land conservation programs. The bill was met with significant opposition from Governor DeSantis and various environmental organizations, and would have tied the South Florida Water Management District’s funding and their ability to implement Everglades restoration projects to a state certification process requiring the District to affirm that their actions would cause no harm to “legal users.” The expedited completion of the EAA reservoir is a key component to moving water south to provide clean freshwater to the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

The amendment to the bill, filed by Senator Albritton (R-Wauchula), on the evening of February 16, 2022, is a significant improvement over the original version with respect to Everglades restoration. The bill removes an unnecessary and redundant requirement that the South Florida Water Management District reevaluate components of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) to ensure there will be no harm to existing “legal users.” Audubon had advocated for the removal of this provision and we believe this is a positive outcome.

The bill amendment, however, did not strike a controversial contingency provision that would tie the South Florida Water Management District to a mandatory certification process requiring the District to demonstrate no harm to “legal users” under agency decisions. However, Sen. Albritton’ s amendment did exempt certain Everglades restoration projects from this contingency provision, including: the EAA Reservoir, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, the C-43 West Basin Reservoir Storage Project, and the Indian River Lagoon South Project. These carve outs are important to ensure that these projects are not delayed.

While the Senate was in session, concerns were voiced by several members regarding potential delays the bill may cause to Everglades restoration and future water quality impacts associated with those delays. Audubon is grateful to Sen. Albritton for the helpful changes to this legislation.

Rural and Family Lands Protection Program Changes Threaten Future of Florida Land Conservation

The amendment made no changes however to the bill’s bad provisions changing the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP). Currently, the state protects land using three tools:  Florida Forever buys ecologically sensitive areas, Florida Communities Trust buys community parks, and Rural and Family Lands easements protect agricultural buffers from development.This bill would fundamentally change Rural and Family Lands by opening it to full-fee acquisitions (purchasing the land outright)—making it a competitor rather than a complement to Florida Forever. It would also allow landowners to double-dip by using lands under easement to the state for mitigation; it allows the Department of Agriculture to determine a “fair price” to pay landowners rather than basing it on appraisal; and expands eligible lands from ecologically important ranches and timber to any agricultural uses—potentially opening the door for the state to acquire low conservation value row crop land. Land acquisition programs only work if the public and landowners have confidence in the transparency and accountability of the state’s decisions. The current language erodes both. SB 2508 passed the Senate with a 37 to 2 vote and will be negotiated when the House and Senate meet for the budget conference. Audubon will continue to advocate for further improvements to this bill. 

 
Black-crowned Night Heron. Photo: Cheryl Black.
Eastern Meadowlark perched on a wooden post. Photo: John Wolaver.
Stormwater Treatment Area Bill Could Allow Creation of Pollution “Hotspots”
Sen. Burgess’ (R-Zephyrhills) SB 1426, and its House companion, HB 965 by Rep. Truenow, (R-Tavares), Water Quality Enhancement Areas, incentivizes the creation of large private stormwater treatment areas that government entities could “buy into” rather than managing their stormwater impacts onsite, as currently required.

While the state has previously partnered with private landowners to store water in an effort to restore waterbodies, this bill would allow government entities causing new harm to wetland resources to compensate for that offsite in one of these regional projects. This is a departure from current law that requires landowners to offset impacts onsite so that their immediate downstream neighbor receives water as clean as they did.

Dispersed water storage projects as we know them help us reverse existing harm in a watershed, so wherever we can make improvements in the system, it is a benefit - like we have seen in the Lake Okeechobee basin.

What the bill is proposing is to offset specific harm with a generic benefit, which is not as effective as onsite treatment. Nor is it fair to neighboring properties, as there is potential for creating pollution “hotspots.”

Stormwater discharged from a redeveloped site must be better, not merely the same as prior to the development. This net improvement was a key component of the discussions by the Stormwater Technical Advisory Committee and included in its recommendations.

Audubon testified in both the House  and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees this week while continuing to work with the bill’s proponents to narrow its scope to restoration uses and to minimize Environmental Resource Permit eligibility.  If the Legislature chooses to authorize use of this untested model, we are advocating that it should first be attempted as a pilot before making it available statewide.
Eastern Meadowlark. Photo: John Wolaver.
Close up of a gopher tortoise head
Gopher Tortoise Legislation Poses Problems
Among other provisions, SB 494 by Sen. Travis Hutson (R-St. Augustine), and its House companion HB 323, (Rep. Sirois, R-Merritt Island), Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, direct state land management agencies to consider creating gopher tortoise recipient sites on state lands that are larger than 40 contiguous acres.Currently, developers seeking to convert gopher tortoise habitat have to relocate tortoises to an approved recipient site for a fee—an important financial motivation for the private landowners of recipient sites to maintain healthy habitat for tortoises and allied species. Citing declining availability of recipient sites, the Senate bill would prioritize relocating tortoises to public lands that are already protected over private lands where tortoise mitigation can drive additional habitat protection. The existing FWC program allows public and private land participation and the agency is working to address the current bottleneck in recipient site availability. Using tortoise mitigation to protect habitat on private land is a win-win for Florida. Audubon Florida does not support this bill.

SB 494 has passed all of its referenced committees and is now in Messages while HB 323 is referenced to State Affairs (Chair, Rep. Massullo, R-Lecanto) that meets next week.
Gopher tortoise.
A Purple Gallinule with its wings outstretched, walking in lily pads. Photo: George Sanker/Audubon Photography Awards.
Key Water and Resiliency Bills Pass Final Committees
HB 1291, Nutrient Application Rates, by Rep. McClure (R-Dover), and its companion, SB 1000, filed by Sen. Albritton  (R-Wauchula), have made it through their committees of reference and were placed on special order calendar this week. The original bill would have allowed all agricultural operations to apply fertilizer based on the recommendation of certified crop advisors, only focusing on yield with little regard for downstream effects on water quality. The scope of this bill was reduced to only allow rate tailoring for citrus, while requiring IFAS to undertake research on the use of site-specific nutrient management for other commodities by the end of 2022. The amendment additionally provides a sunset date for this test case with citrus.

HB 513, by Reps. Bartleman (D-Weston) and Busatta Cabrera (R- Coral Gables), and its Senate companion, SB 1326  (Sen. Rodriguez, R-Doral), Comprehensive Review Study of the Central and Southern Florida Project, have also passed all three committees of reference and are now on special order calendar next week. The bill would require the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to produce an annual report on the impact of sea-level rise and flood resiliency in Central and South Florida, updating the Central and Southern Florida Project.

The bill specifically requires: a summary of the findings in the SFWMD’s annual sea level rise and flood resiliency plan; a list of structures that are expected to fall below the expected service level in the next five years; and initial recommendations for the refurbishment or replacement of the structures identified in the bill. With sea level rise and flooding becoming increasingly problematic in Florida, this project is meant to protect 11 million Floridians, their environment, and their economy. This bill is timely, and if passed will complement the SFWMD’s resiliency planning efforts.
Purple Gallinule. Photo: George Sanker/Audubon Photography Awards.
Groundbreaking event. People shovel dirt with a large tractor in the background.
Groundbreaking on C-23/24 Stormwater Treatment Area Will Improve Water Quality in St. Lucie Estuary
The Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District, Audubon Florida, and community partners celebrated the groundbreaking of the C-23/24 Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) project in Fort Pierce on Friday.

This STA is an important component of the Indian River Lagoon South Everglades restoration project, which aims to reduce nutrient and sediment loads within the St. Lucie and Indian River Lagoon basin – one of the most diverse estuarine environments in the United States and one that has been plagued by algae blooms in recent years. Construction on the 2,070-acre wetland feature began last fall and, when complete, the STA will provide 4,800-acre feet of new water storage and treatment.

Together with its future reservoirs, this STA will be able to remove approximately 7.9 million cubic yards of muck from the St. Lucie River and reduce nitrogen by 26% and phosphorus by 41%. The project is scheduled for completion by 2025 and is expected to contribute to a long-term solution for basin runoff and pollution for the region.


Dr. Paul Gray, Audubon Florida Everglades Science Coordinator, attended the event. For more information on this project, click here.
Photo: Paul Gray/Audubon Florida.
A group of people cutting a ribbon with giant scissors, with a marsh in the background.
Scott Water Farm Project Critical Component of Improving Health of the St. Lucie Estuary
Last week Audubon celebrated a major step forward in efforts to clean up the St. Lucie Estuary. The Scott Water Farm stores water across 7,500 acres of private land, approved by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in 2018. The project is designed to capture 29,000 acre-feet of polluted water before it reaches the St. Lucie Estuary, either from rainfall or pumped from the C-25 canal.

The newly-completed initiative contains two basins, one located in Northern Okeechobee County and the other in Southern Indian County.  The farm is adjacent to the Turnpike Canal in the northern C-25 basin and it feeds into the C-25 Canal Extension about five miles west of the S-99 discharge point. In addition to storing approximately 8.8 billion gallons of water, it will remove 3.8 metric tons of phosphorus and 22.2 metric tons of nitrogen per year.  It is one of two water farms in the area built on former citrus groves, where partnerships with private landowners make them a part of the solution to water quality issues.

These types of public-private partnerships are a win-win for people and the environment, providing an income stream for ranchers/landowners while protecting our green spaces and cleaning our water.

Dr. Paul Gray, Audubon Florida Everglades Science Coordinator, attended the event. For more information on the project and water farming, click here.
Ribbon-cutting event. Photo: Paul Gray/Audubon Florida.
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