Water managers ponder loss of wetlands

WEST PALM BEACH — The continued loss of South Florida’s wetlands was the topic of discussion at the April 8 South Florida Water Management District workshop. While the commissioners had different ideas on how to solve the problem, they seemed to agree on one point: What the state is doing now, is not working.

Due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, the SFWMD governing board, staff and members of the public participated in the workshop online via Zoom.

Ricardo Valera, SFWMD bureau chief, said the Environmental Resource Permitting (ERP) process was first adopted in 1972 as Surface Water Management (SWM) permitting. In 1995 ERP replaced SWM. In 2013, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was tasked to lead, development and implement ERP rules statewide in partnership with water management districts.

He said DEP handles development of single-family homes if they have wetland impact. SFWMD takes the lead for developments of four or more homes.

He said developments permitted after 1995 were designed with stormwater treatment requirements. Prior to that the focus was on flood protection. Once the systems are permitted, there is a “presumption of compliance.”

He said the Blue Green Algae Task Force has recommended a stormwater inspection and monitoring program to identify improperly functioning systems so that correction action can be taken to reduce nutrient pollution. The task force also recommended revising and updating stormwater treatment design to include advances in technologies.

Senate Bill 712 also addresses stormwater design.

Laura Layman said ERP applicants must “provide reasonable assurances that a regulated activity: Will not adversely impact the value of functions provided to fish and wildlife and listed species by wetlands and other surface waters; will not cause adverse secondary impact to the water resources; and, will not cause unacceptable cumulative impacts upon wetlands or other surface waters.”

She said the state determines what qualifies as a wetland based on hydrology, vegetation and soil composition.

“Of course all of these things we are doing are affecting fish and wildlife,” said Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch. She pointed out the SFWMD new mission statement includes “that our goal is to safeguard and restore South Florida’s water resources and ecosystems.”

She said they must ensure there is no net loss of wetlands.

“We’re living in a time that is full of so many issues that we never expected,” she said. “We have to look at our impaired waters. Almost every water body is impaired.”

She said following the letter of the current law is not enough.

“There is a growing knowledge there is a better way to develop to provide more protection of wetlands and downstream water quality,” said SFMWD Executive Director Drew Bartlett.

SFWMD Governing Board member Ron Bergeron said they should focus attention on the larger wetlands.
“One thing I have seen through my 50-year career, it is extremely important to make sure we are protecting wetlands,” he said. “Obviously jobs and growth are important, too,” he added.
He said there are some small tracts of land surrounded by development that are designated as wetlands.

‘These areas were drained in some areas over a century ago,” he said. “Some of these areas are so small that a frog couldn’t even exist.”

Mr. Bergeron suggested preserving larger wetlands in the area of the wildlife corridor, which would not only provide the water recharging and filtration benefits of wetlands but also provide significant wildlife habitat.

He said instead of preserving small wetlands in highly developed areas, they should concentrate on preserving larger wetlands.

“In Monroe County there is always development pressure,” said governing board member Cheryl Meads. “Someone outside the county is making a move to get the state to increase the number of permits. There is always that pressure to develop.

“We are down to some really beautiful large sites that should never be touched,” she added.

Ms. Layman said developers can mitigate wetlands loss on the site, purchase another property nearby that has wetlands they can restore or enhance, or purchase credits from a wetlands mitigation bank.

Property held by a mitigation bank has to be maintained as a wetland in perpetuity.

“There is a big shortage of wetland credits,” said Mr. Bergeron. He said some of the wetlands in highly developed areas are on properties as small as one to 10 acres.

“They are in a drainage district,” he said. “A lot of them are solid covered with exotics.

“On a site with an acre or two acres inside of a drainage district you are not going to get the true benefit of a wetland,” he said.

He said developers have to deal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Florida and county regulations.

“One wants it on site, one wants it off site,” he said. “We need to streamline the process and make sure we are protecting the environment and getting the most benefit for the future of South Florida.”

He said they need to be able to preserve land and mitigate properly “and still have reasonable growth.”

Rae Ann Wessel with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation said the wetlands are the kidneys that clean the water. They absorb the stormwater and filter pollution.

“Freshwater held on the land is holding off the saltwater intrusion,” she said. They also provide habitat for wildlife.

“We have over-drained the surface waters and ground waters,” she said. That leads to degradation of water quality, which feeds the harmful algae blooms.

The Caloosahatchee watershed has lost about 63 percent of its historic mangroves and wetlands, said Ms. Wessel. She asked the district to include transition and buffer zones in wetlands preservation.

She argued that it is important to preserve even the small wetlands.

‘There are a lot of little isolated wetlands but they are very important for the function of hydrology and groundwater,” she said. “We have to recognize the full function of wetlands.” Even if wetlands have been taken over by exotic plants, some wetland functions are still being served, she added.

She said the use of mitigation banks does not ensure there will be no net loss of wetlands in South Florida.

“It has become more of a paperwork exercise,” she said.

She said preserving wetlands in one location to offset losing wetlands in another location still leaves a loss of wetlands.

Current permitting has allowed a significant overdrainage of the land, she said. “We need to look at the stormwater timing for retention on land.”

“We are not meeting the goal of no net loss of wetland acreage,” said Marisa Carrozzo with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “There has been significant loss of both function and acreage.” She said the loss of wetlands puts communities at greater risk of harmful algae blooms.

Mitigations is supposed to be the last resort, she added.

Existing stormwater design criteria fail to meet the target goals for cleaning the stormwater discharges that go into Florida waters, said Ms. Carrozzo. Stormwater ponds that are relied upon in most developments typically only remove only about 20-40 percent of the nitrogen and 60-70 percent of the phosphorus.

“We are still losing wetlands,” said Doug Gaston of Audubon Florida. He said loss of shallow seasonal wetlands and wet prairie results in increased flood risk, increased wildfire risk and unsustainable nutrient loads that fuel algae blooms.

“We need to take advantage of every opportunity to hold the water, slow it down and clean it,” he said.

Mr. Gaston said this is particularly important in the northern Everglades, the area between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee.

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