Florida should let feds handle wetlands permitting

June 13, 2022

By Amber Crooks | Conservancy Environmental Policy Manager

The Orlando Sentinel recently published an editorial asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to rescue Florida’s wetlands by returning the Clean Water Act Section 404 permitting program to the federal government. We agree and urge state and federal leadership to immediately begin the process of returning the program to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The state of Florida is close to deciding on immense and disastrous development projects that will forever change Southwest Florida and the fates of our endangered species, wetland flow-ways, drinking water resources, and cherished public lands. Having access to all of our foundational federal laws – which Florida’s program circumnavigates – is absolutely essential at this moment.

Of the more than 5,000 projects received by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, our region is disproportionally burdened by the state’s flawed wetlands permitting program. For example:

• Approximately one-fifth of the proposed roads, mines, and developments are in Southwest Florida.

• About 580 of the projects are within Collier County alone, where the last remaining core habitat for the endangered Florida panther hangs in the balance.

When it successfully sought to take over wetlands permitting, Florida only estimated 130 applications a year in Southwest Florida. In reality, however, the state vastly underestimated the volume and complexity of the permitting it would be responsible for handling.

If Florida’s program continues to languish without intervention, the state may allow some developers to move forward without adequate mitigation for wetland impacts. In fact, some developers may be able to completely avoid the regulatory process while Florida continues to use a less-protective standard for identifying federal wetlands.

Absent from the state program are essential federal protections and processes like the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act – and this is at a time when six proposed projects in Lee and Collier counties would destroy more than 8,000 acres of essential habitat necessary for the continued survival of the endangered Florida panther. These projects would also impact nearly 1,000 acres of irreplaceable wetlands that are critical for water quality, flood control, and habitat for wildlife.

One project in Collier County – the Rural Lands West project – never received the green light from the Army Corps of Engineers despite permitting attempts over the last decade. This project and a companion proposal, known as Bellmar, will form a new massive development over six miles long and two miles wide.

These eastern Collier County developments are within a flow-way and panther corridor, and they are next door to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. They will lead to 19,000 new residents, who will add massive traffic flows onto roadways that are already deadly for the panther. Just a few miles away, located at a hotspot for Florida panther roadkill, the Immokalee Road Rural Village project is also under review by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Meanwhile, when three projects in Lee County – the Troyer Mine, FFD, and Kingston proposals – previously filed applications with the federal Army Corps of Engineers, they were told by the agency that rigorous studies of impacts on wetlands, drinking water, listed species, and public safety were necessary before they could move forward. But now that the projects are being decided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the federal environmental reviews are no longer required.

The distress call has been sent out regarding Florida’s wetlands permitting program. It is time for action to protect our critical watersheds and save our swamps.

Visit www.conservancy.org/404 for more information on this issue.