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Wetlands: With pollution problems aplenty, state tries to find way out of muck.

By Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite
Published March 4, 2007


The slimy goop first showed up in the St. Johns River in July 2005. Soon the blue-green algae was clogging the river for miles through Jacksonville. The toxic bloom lingered for months. People coughed, they sneezed, their skin got irritated.

Meanwhile, similar blooms were killing fish - and tourism - along the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers and the St. Lucie River near Stuart.

All three toxic algae blooms were fueled by nutrient pollution, the product of fertilizer-laden runoff from yards, golf courses, landscaping and farms.

Across Florida are rivers, lakes and estuaries with similar pollution problems. When state officials drew up a list of 1,200 Florida waterways impaired by pollution, 80 percent suffered from fertilizer-heavy runoff.

They were all in areas where Florida has lost the most wetlands in the past 15 years.

State and federal officials have been promising since 1990 there would be no net loss of wetlands. But the St. Petersburg Times found by analyzing satellite imagery that Florida has lost about 84,000 acres of wetlands to urban uses - converted to houses, stores and roads to accommodate growth.

As far back as 1971, a report to then-Gov. Reubin Askew on the state's water supply bluntly recommended, "There should be no further draining of wetlands for any purpose. ... Wetlands are the most biologically productive of all lands."

Yet Askew was unable to convince the Legislature to save the state's wetlands. For 35 years, lawmakers have mostly focused their efforts on making them easier to eliminate.

Wiping out swamps produces a profit for developers, but at a cost to the public.

Wetlands not only filter out pollution, such as nutrients. They're also a reservoir. A one-acre swamp can store 1-million gallons of water. Filling in a wetland for development increases the odds that during the rainy season some cul-de-sac will flood.

Wetlands also recharge the underground drinking-water supply. And studies have found that paving over wetlands can decrease annual rainfall and drive up temperatures.

More than 20 years ago the Legislature passed the law that's supposed to protect Florida's wetlands. Lurking in the Warren S. Henderson Wetlands Protection Act of 1984 was a loophole called "mitigation." Mitigation means that it's all right to wipe out a wetland so long as you made up for the damage, usually by building a man-made wetland to replace it.

"The Warren Henderson Act encompassed virtually all true wetlands," said Ann Redmond, one of the state's top wetlands experts. "That meant a whole lot more regulations. In a state as flat and wet as Florida, that could cause problems for development. There had to be some kind of a give. The give was: We had to allow for the mitigation of wetlands, so you could get through the regulations."

In 1991, Redmond was dispatched to see how well mitigation was working. Of the 119 sites she checked, Redmond found only 17 that could be called a success. The rest either failed or were never built.

In the 16 years since Redmond wrote her report, though, the Legislature has acted as if it didn't exist. Lawmakers still treat mitigation as a cure for wetland losses.

For instance, in 2001, auditors found regulators had no idea of the cumulative impact of issuing thousands of permits allowing the destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands.

Instead of fixing the problem, the Legislature made it worse. A new law decreed that so long as the mitigation is in the same area as the wetland being wiped out, the development is deemed to have no environmental impact - and thus there is no need to consider cumulative impact.

Mitigation banks were supposed to be the ultimate panacea. Mitigation bankers restore a drained wetland, then sell wetland "credits" to anyone who needs to mitigate for destroying swamps. The state is a big customer, spending millions of dollars on credits to make up for the swamps wiped out by new highways.

But the Legislature made the rules for mitigation banks so loose that in calculating credits, dry land counts the same as wetlands. Ten banks have been allowed to claim a third or more of their credits for saving dry land. Together those 10 were granted more than 5,000 credits for dry land - credits that can be sold as if they were the equivalent of 5,000 acres of pristine swamps.

Asked how that helps achieve no net loss of wetlands, mitigation bank consultant Stuart Bradow said, "Yeah, well, good luck with that!"

Banks that are years behind on the restoration work they promised are still selling credits to developers wiping out wetlands. Government oversight is so lax that state regulators didn't inspect one bank for five years, even though it was only 16 miles from their office.

So far no lawmaker has suggested tightening the rules. Instead the Legislature has spent the past two years trying to loosen existing wetland protections.

A bill written by a developers' lobbyist passed, calling for the state to take over much of the federal government's permitting duties. Developers want that because the state says yes more often and faster. So far, federal officials have not agreed to the change.

Two counties, Hillsborough and Martin, have more stringent wetland rules than the state does - so last year lawmakers talked about forcing them to defer to the state. The bill died but could come back.

This year the South Florida Water Management District is grappling with the pollution problems in Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee, so it is seeking the Legislature's approval for restricting runoff from new development.

The goal: eliminate nutrient pollution - but only in those specific watersheds, not everywhere. And no other state agency is seeking similar improvements in pollution control.

Instead, state officials remain focused on cranking out development permits. Regulators have 90 days to approve a permit or it's automatically issued. A year later, an inspector is supposed to check compliance.

But state employees told investigators two years ago they're so busy rubber-stamping new wetland permits that they hadn't done any inspections in years. Developers know that when it comes to wetlands they can get away with murder, they said.

"They know there is nobody out there checking, they know," one Department of Environmental Protection employee said.

"So they are wreaking havoc?" an investigator asked.

"Absolutely," she replied.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

[Last modified March 4, 2007, 01:12:44]

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