Energy & Environment

EPA gives Florida authority over managing wetlands, waterways

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday announced it would give oversight of Florida waterways to the state.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the move a road map for other states who want to take over responsibility for issuing permits under the Clean Water Act.

“Florida has a wealth of aquatic resources. And they care about their resources at least as much, and I would say probably more so, than the federal government. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be running their own program,” he said.

Florida is not just home to the Everglades, swamps, wetlands and beaches, but a network of more than 1,000 springs — which the state suspects may be the largest concentration of springs in the world.

Critics fear lax oversight from the state could allow development to encroach on natural areas and pollute waterways that are home to species ranging from manatees to the mullet. 

“Handing federal oversight of Florida’s wetlands and waterways to the state’s pro-development regulators will speed the bulldozing of the special places that are home to 130 of our most endangered plants and animals,” Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. 

“Far too many Florida officials treat our natural areas as playgrounds for developers,” he added. “It’s time our regulators embraced the reality that protecting natural areas and wildlife is not only in the nation’s best long-term environmental interest, but its best long-term economic interest.”

The grant from EPA gives Florida the authority to issue permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which regulates “fill for development” before building highways and other infrastructure like dams and levees. 

“Nobody loves Florida more than Floridians. Now this puts Floridians — talented, qualified Floridians — in the driver’s seat,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “Leaders in Florida will be the one making these decisions, making sure they adhere to all federal laws and regulations as well.”

But many environmentalists say Florida has a poor record when it comes to managing water quality.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), elected in 2018, made early moves that pleased environmentalists. In his first several months in office, he boosted funding for Everglades restoration, signed off on $50 million for spring restoration and created a blue-green algae task force.

He also fired South Florida Water Management District Governing Board members.

But since then, he’s appointed developers and a former legislator who pushed a bill to block inspections of septic systems to various water boards across the state.

The state has also been plagued by blue-green algae and an algae-spurred red tide that have caused dead fish to wash ashore Florida beaches.  

The grant makes Florida the third state to have such an arrangement with the EPA.

“I strongly encourage other states to take advantage of this opportunity and move forward with their own applications,” Wheeler said at the end of the announcement.

Tags Andrew Wheeler Clean Water Act Environmental Protection Agency Everglades Florida Mario Diaz-Balart Ron DeSantis United States Environmental Protection Agency

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