Nicole Johnson | Director of Environmental Policy, Conservancy of Southwest Florida
Like so many Floridians facing the current public health crisis, the state of Florida itself is wrestling with a budget shortfall. That shortfall is estimated at $2.7 billion.
Yet, Florida is investing in two major projects that have the potential to jeopardize the very foundation of our economy, which is our environment. These undertakings are 1) unnecessary new toll roads (as part of the M-CORES program) and 2) the state’s assumption (essentially taking on the burden) of the Clean Water Act 404 permitting program for wetland destruction.
Hiding under long acronyms and confusing terminology, these two initiatives will change Florida forever. One will result in 330 miles of new or expanded tolled roadways opening up large swaths of our rural Florida to sprawling growth. The other will fast-track the wetland destruction permits that these development projects need to begin construction.
With regard to the expensive new toll roads, if M-CORES goes forward, funds will be diverted from necessary road improvements that have already been many years in the queue. Critical advancements, such as water quality projects, have been vetoed due to budget constraints. In its place will be unneeded roads that threaten wetlands, wildlife habitat, public lands, and agriculture. The supposed public benefits of these toll roads, such as addressing broadband, storm preparedness, and other issues, in reality, can (and should) be done without unnecessary new toll roads.
Additionally, if the state of Florida takes over the costs and burden of implementing the Clean Water Act program from the federal agency, some of the most important laws that have protected our most treasured wetlands will fall away. The already dismal state of our water resources will deteriorate further.
At the steering wheel will be Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), an agency that permitted over 10,000 acres of mines in Lee and Collier counties in 2011 alone. In contrast, the federal agency (though itself far from perfect), was able to slow down these developments with the use of the National Environmental Policy Act, a tool that will no longer be in the toolbox if the state is awarded control of this program.
Florida does not have to take on this costly workload, and it is incomprehensible why they continue to pursue the heavy burden of administering this federal program. Despite having more wetlands than any other state in the continental United States, FDEP testified before the legislature that they would be able to do so with no additional funding. It is illogical to believe that such an additional responsibility will not cost taxpayers more. In addition, these statements by FDEP were made pre-COVID, which has even further impacted an already strained state budget.
With the state agencies already strapped with their current responsibilities, and the budget in dire straits well into the future, how will the state be able to do more with less? Unfortunately, our waters would pay the price, while developers would benefit.
These two bad ideas, new toll roads and taking over federal wetlands permitting, were attempted in some fashion years ago, and were abandoned due to cost and controversy. The same concerns apply today.
Florida has over 130 listed species and 11 million acres of wetlands, making the Florida we know and love today.
Whether you look at it from a budget perspective or from an environmental perspective, Florida cannot afford to pursue these two initiatives.