Audubon Florida
The Advocate
This is the fourth week of the 2024 Florida Legislative Session and we are halfway there. It is also the final week for subcommittees to meet. We have no updates on budgets this week, as the House and Senate committees continue their work on budget proposals. But first, we share details from the 39th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference. 
A speaker in front of a room full of spectators.
Audubon at the Annual Everglades Coalition Conference
More than 400 conservation groups, leaders, scientists, students, and supporters attended the 39th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference, held Jan. 25-27 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort in Bonita Springs, Florida. The three-day conference is the largest forum for discussing the restoration of the Everglades and featured several keynote speakers, educational sessions, and awards.

Each year, the Everglades Coalition hosts its annual conference to educate attendees about the full restoration of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem. The 2024 conference, themed Everglades Restoration Rewards: Benefitting Ecosystems, Economies, and Communities, featured panelists who highlighted topics including ecological health and economic success, environmental advocacy, art and culture concerning the Everglades, marine ecosystems, and the future of Florida’s conservation. Audubon’s Director of Everglades Policy, Kelly Cox, serves as co-chair to the Coalition and led the planning and organization of this year’s conference.

Of note, Audubon’s Chief Conservation Officer Marshall Johnson attended and provided insightful keynote remarks on Friday morning. Audubon’s Everglades Science Coordinator, Paul Gray, PhD, moderated an informative and interesting panel discussion on the overlay between conservation and private lands. The conference was rounded out with inspiring keynote presentations from Assistant Secretary Shannon Estenoz of the Department of Interior, Assistant Secretary of the Army Michael Connor, and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Tropical Audubon Society’s Board member, Col. Rock Salt, was also inducted into the Hall of Fame during this year’s conference for his contributions to restoration progress and building community.
Everglades Coalition Conference.
A brilliant blue bird walking on lilypads
Improved Process for Development Near the Everglades Agricultural Area
HB 723, sponsored by Rep. Busatta-Cabrera (R-Coral Gables), had its first hearing this week in the House Agriculture, Conservation and Resiliency Subcommittee (Chair Rep. Buchanan (R-Osprey)). The bill requires local development plans or plan amendments concerning land within two miles of the designated Everglades Protection Area to follow Florida’s coordinated review process rather than the expedited review process. The state and federal governments have spent billions of dollars to date to restore the Everglades. This bill would protect these investments without hindering restoration progress.

SB 1364 by Sen. Alexis Calatyud (R-Miami)  is on the agenda next week in the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Purple Gallinule. Photo: Nancy Malecki/Audubon Photography Awards
Gulls on a beach.
Simplifying Reporting of Unsafe Levels of Bacteria on Beaches and Public Bathing Spaces
Several good bills made their way through the House Water Quality, Supply and Treatment Subcommittee (Chair, Rep. Stevenson (R-St. Johns)) as it met for the last time this week.

HB 165, Sampling of Beach Waters and Public Bathing Spaces, sponsored by Rep. Gossett-Siedman (R-Highland Beach) and Rep. Cross (R-St. Petersburg) would move reporting and communication responsibilities of harmful bacteria levels in beaches from the Florida Department of Health to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Exposure to unsafe levels of bacteria can cause a host of health problems. The bill requires that beach waters and public bathing places must close if necessary to protect the health and safety of the public and must remain closed until the water quality is restored per the Department's standards. The bill attempts to simplify the current reporting system amongst state agencies, cities, and counties to be more transparent and proactive in informing the public of unsafe swimming conditions.
Laughing Gulls. Photo: Kevin Halloran/Audubon Photography Awards
A black bird running on shallow water.
Updating Florida's Stormwater Rules
Audubon was pleased to see the unanimous passage of the bill to ratify the statewide stormwater rule, Proposed Committee Bill (PCB WST 24-01) in the committee this week. It has been over three years since the passage of SB 712 prioritized the update of Florida’s outdated stormwater rules. While the updated rule will only address discharges from new developments, it is more protective and will reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from further fueling algae blooms in our coastal waters. Stopping pollution at the source is far less expensive than engaging in expensive cleanup afterward.

The Senate Companion is SB 7040, a Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee bill.
American Coot. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards
Large birds on a winter field.
Mitigation Banking
We have reported previously on our concerns with HB 1073 Mitigation by Rep. Truenow (R-Tavares). Read about it HERE. This week saw improvements to the bill which now requires the local government, through a public procurement process, to evaluate proposals from private sector sponsors for a mitigation bank on public lands purchased for conservation purposes. The bill requires the private sponsor to pay a usage fee to the local government which reflects the market value of the public land and assures that the cost of the use of the public land is fully accounted for in the pricing of mitigation credits. The Senate companion SB 1352 by Senator Brodeur (R-Sanford) does not include these changes.
Sandhill Cranes. Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon
Two small birds, one in flight and one perched.
Responsibility for Legal Fees Update
We are pleased to report, thanks to much work by our team and partners, the harmful language in HB 738 sponsored by Sen. Burgess (R-Zephyrhills) was removed (as was the case last week in HB 789 by Rep Overdorf). This provision would have entitled the prevailing parties to have their legal fees paid for by the losing party in challenges to permits issued by DEP and the water management districts. However, still in the bill is the section that requires a very expansive review of all coastal environmental permitting.

The bill passed through the Judiciary Committee (Chair, Sen. Yarborough (R-Jacksonville)) this week.Both SB 738 and HB 789 (Rep. Overdorf (R-Palm City)) still retain a provision that narrows the cause of action for damages under the Water Quality Assurance Act (the Act) to permit damages only to real or personal property directly resulting from a discharge of pollution covered under the Act.

SB 789 was reported favorably in the House Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee (Chair, Rep. Altman, (R-Indialantic)).
Barn Swallows. Photo: Peter Bauer/Audubon Photography Awards
A dolphin jumps in a wave.
Release of Balloons Bill Moves Forward
Lastly, we’d like to report that HB 321, Release of Balloons by Rep. Chaney (R-St. Pete Beach)made it through the Criminal Justice Subcommittee (Chair Rep. Truenow (R-Tavares)). Both House and Senate versions are referenced to their last and final committee. Read details on the bill HERE. Balloons contribute to plastic pollution problems and harm marine life when accidentally ingested. 
Photo: Pixabay
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