To pair with the rest of our educational content in each Earth to Florida newsletter, we bring you monthly updates on statewide environmental news. Read on below to see what we found for the month of June:
12 Florida Stories to Watch
- A controversial Lake Okeechobee water bill has been vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Environmental groups that opposed SB 2508 said the bill would have prioritized farmers getting water from Lake Okeechobee over water being sent south to the Everglades. In his veto letter, DeSantis wrote, “SB 2508 still creates unnecessary and redundant regulatory hurdles which may compromise the timely execution and implementation of Everglades restoration projects, water control plans and regulation schedules.”
- A recent analysis of water data from 2016-2021 by the TCPalm found that all 32 water basins surrounding Lake Okeechobee have exceeded the phosphorus limit, with one reaching up to 22 times the state pollution limit. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) oversees the state’s Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), which are intended to reduce pollution. Within the BMAPs are rules, or best management practices, for farmers to follow, such as avoiding nutrient-heavy fertilizer. However, the analysis showed that although the DEP has the authority to issue fines and file lawsuits against those who do not comply, it has never done either in the five years the program has been enforceable. Excessive fertilizer use drives much of the pollution in Florida’s waterways and has led to toxic algal blooms and seagrass die-off among other issues.
- Florida’s citrus production is the lowest its been in eight decades. The past two decades have seen a downward trend in citrus production due to residential and commercial development, imports, and citrus greening. An incurable bacterial disease – citrus greening is one of the biggest threats to the U.S. citrus industry. Recently, a judge ordered the Florida Department of Agriculture to pay a $1.2 million compensation to a local commercial nursery after a jury determined that the department had destroyed more than 160,000 citrus trees in the 2000s while trying to stop the spread of citrus greening. The department argued that the nursery could have avoided the crop loss by putting the trees in greenhouses.
- A deal has been reached with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rethink what is considered critical habitat for Florida manatees. This deal will require the USFWS to revise current critical habitat designations to include waterways that are frequented by manatees by September 12, 2024. Areas that are determined as critical habitats require special management and protection plans. The settlement comes after a lawsuit filed earlier in the year by environmental groups after a record-breaking number of 1,101 manatee deaths last year.
- Last year, the state passed legislation requiring the DEP to conduct a vulnerability study and set aside millions of dollars for new infrastructure projects meant to protect Floridians from worsening sea level rise and flooding. A new piece of legislation recently signed into law by Gov. DeSantis will solidify the state’s Chief Resilience Officer position and require a statewide resilience plan. While the new legislation includes measures to mitigate impacts from sea level rise, environmental groups point out it doesn’t address cutting our fossil fuel emissions, which is the root cause of climate change.
- Inspired by M-34, a 3-year-old black bear that wandered the dangerous path of I-4, a new wildlife underpass is being built beneath the highway between Tampa and Orlando with funding from the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. With 287 bears and 21 panthers dying on the road last year, wildlife crossings can help species safely migrate throughout the state. Researchers from the University of Central Florida say more land still needs to be preserved around I-4 so animals can reach the crossing.
- Researchers and storm analysts are making use of new drone and satellite technology to help make more accurate hurricane forecasts, which can improve disaster response. Meanwhile, scientists are proposing two alternative hurricane indexes to the currently used Saffir-Simpson scale, which is based solely on wind speeds. Scientists say the Integrated Kinetic Energy Scale and the Cyclone Damage Potential Index could help provide a more realistic picture of the various dangers of a potential storm, like storm surge and tornadoes. In other hurricane news, new legislation signed by Gov. DeSantis will provide a sales-tax exemption for storm wind-resistant windows and doors for two years. The Department of Financial Services will also be providing grants up to $10,000 under the “My Safe Florida Home” grant, but it is unclear when homeowners will be able to apply.
- Newly passed federal legislation will create a task force responsible for developing solutions to control blue-green algae blooms in Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, and the Indian River Lagoon. The group would have 540 days to submit a plan to President Biden. Florida’s statewide blue-green algae task force, which was developed in 2019, has made recommendations to the state previously. The Florida Department of Health has recently issued health alerts for blue-green algae in three Polk County lakes in South Central Florida and one Marion County lake in North Central Florida. Blooms have also been spotted in multiple Cape Coral canals, Lake Okeechobee, and the Caloosahatchee River. Meanwhile, red tide has started to bloom in background concentrations in the Indian River Lagoon.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued new health advisories for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. Otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” these highly stable manmade chemicals do not naturally degrade, causing them to accumulate in the environment and in living organisms. The chemicals have been linked to infertility, thyroid problems and certain types of cancer. Previous health advisories set the safe exposure limit to 70 parts per trillion, but new advisories limit that number drastically – setting a lifetime exposure limit to 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS respectively. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Florida have found traces of PFAS nearly everywhere in the imperiled Indian River Lagoon. Military bases, firefighter training facilities, and airports are among the largest contributors to PFAS pollution in Florida due to the use of PFAS in fire suppressant foam.
- The EPA has approved a permit for an offshore aquaculture demonstration project off the coast of Sarasota. The agency had previously withheld final approval until the project team could clarify whether fish waste would degrade the water. The proposed demonstration project would operate one cage at a depth of 130 feet and house up to 20,000 almaco jack. Ocean Era is still awaiting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which it expects to receive in the next couple of months. The project, originally funded by Florida Sea Grant in 2017, is the first and only so far to take advantage of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Gulf Aquaculture Plan, but it has received pushback from several environmental groups that worry about how the fish farm will impact water quality. In late June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened public comment on nine other potential aquaculture sites in the Gulf of Mexico.
- After vocal opposition, Miami city commissioner Joe Carolla has dropped his proposed ordinance to outlaw planting mangroves and tall plants at city parks, a measure that was originally proposed to protect waterfront views. Environmental advocates emphasized the protection mangroves provide against storm surge and other impacts from rising sea levels in South Florida. As a response to the increased risk of flooding due to climate change and sea level rise, the South Florida Water Management District has begun to improve its flood control system, beginning with two massive coastal pump stations.
- The controversy over the proposed extension of the Florida Turnpike continued at a recent Sumter County commission meeting. About 50 people were in attendance to protest the extension and two people were removed from the meeting. Opponents of the project argued that pollution from the extension would damage vital ecosystems including the Rainbow River and Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenways corridor, damage ecotourism and agriculture industries, and shave off half of Royal, one of the oldest Black communities in the state. Supporters view the extension as a potential economic boost — providing new construction jobs and further housing development in struggling rural areas. Several counties that would be impacted by the expansion have already endorsed a “No Build” position.
The Good News
- The Florida panther population is on the rise according to a new study from the University of Georgia. The study documented the causes of death for the white-tailed deer, an important source of prey for the Florida panther. In the 1990s, few deer were killed by panthers, but in this new study, it was reported that 96 of the 241 captured deer fell prey to them.
- A team of scuba enthusiasts have developed a way to turn invasive lionfish into fish leather. Stronger and more sustainable than other types of leather, this new product can help reduce the high quantities of lionfish currently harming marine ecosystems and native fish in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean. But production of the new leather relies on local fishers to catch these lionfish, and there is currently no compensation for their labor, leading to little incentive to do so. The team is looking to set up fishing cooperatives in Mexico that finance necessary equipment and offer incentives and payments for lionfish.
- One of North America’s most endangered birds, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, has begun its road to recovery. This has been achieved through a conservation-recovery and release program, conducted by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission amongst other foundations. Their efforts coupled with 6,000 acres of newly conserved land in the DeLuca Preserve in Osceola County provide the species with habitat and a hopeful outlook.
- The Gulf Coast of Florida is home to one of the largest seagrass beds in the state, with over half a million acres, second only to Florida Bay. Seagrass is crucial to marine food chains and provides habitat for numerous economically important fish and other organisms. As water quality issues lead to seagrass loss around the state, scientists in Hernando County have observed seagrass meadow increases over the past few years, noting the importance of protecting these resources.
Things You Can Do
- The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation has started a new program to help preserve reef fish called Return ‘Em Right. The goal is to promote best fishing practices and proper fish handling to increase the survival rate of released reef fish. Many groups are supporting the effort, including Florida Sea Grant, the University of Florida, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, NOAA Fisheries, and other government and non-government organizations. Florida anglers are urged to visit ReturnEmRight.org to review best practices and help maintain fish populations.
- If you’re looking for a way to support your local organizations, Florida recently unveiled 12 new specialty license plates to benefit HBCUs, the environment, and veterans. These include the “Explore Off-Road” license plate, proceeds of which support the Florida Off-Road Foundation – a nonprofit that works to preserve Florida’s environment with trail maintenance and organized clean-ups. The “America the Beautiful” plate supports the America the Beautiful Fund, which provides youth services and other programs, including wildlife conservation, park and playground development, and outdoor education.
Florida Research News
- Researchers at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium have successfully reared 12,000 Caribbean king crabs and counting as part of a $100 million project called Mission Iconic Reefs. The project, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, looks to increase coral coverage on seven imperiled reefs by 2035. Much of the coral is being grown in land-based nurseries and will later be planted on the reefs. The Caribbean king crabs, along with sea urchins, are vital to keeping algae at bay as the new coral tries to grow and rebuild.
- A team of 23 University of Florida scientists are working to assess the biodiversity on a recently donated piece of land called the DeLuca Preserve, an undeveloped piece of land south of Orlando that is part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. From researching the land’s mosquitoes to the soil microbiome, the scientists hope the wild space will serve as a living lab to help further practical, applied research.
- A recent study by the University of Florida found that forever chemicals are widespread in the Indian River Lagoon, and have reached more than four times the safe drinking water levels in some areas. Otherwise known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), these highly stable manmade chemicals have been linked to a multitude of health effects in humans and wildlife. UF researchers hypothesize that the wide distribution of PFAS in Florida’s waterways is due to the contamination from consumer products and industrial processes, including wastewater treatment centers and military fire training areas.
- Scientists with NOAA predict a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico encompassing over 5,000 square miles. A dead, or hypoxic, zone is an area that lacks oxygen and can kill fish and other marine life. While the forecast is slightly lower than last year’s size, nutrient inputs haven’t really changed since 1990. Researchers say a plan was developed 20 years ago to reduce the size of the dead zone, but this year’s forecast is still close to that of the 35-year average. A dead, or hypoxic, zone is an area that lacks oxygen and can kill fish and other marine life.
- A recent survey conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that many Americans are experiencing long-term financial problems as a result of climate change-fueled extreme weather. Of the survey respondents, more than 75% said they have experienced extreme weather like hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and floods, within the last 5 years. Seventy percent of respondents who had suffered property damage were under or uninsured.
- In its new climate newsletter, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that more than 21 million people in 13 states were expected to experience at least five extreme heat days in June. Between June and August, the average temperature across the continental U.S. is expected to be between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. The Department says the newsletter is meant to “inform health professionals and the public on how our health may be affected in the next 30 and 90 days by climate events and provide resources to take proactive action.”
The More You Know
- With the help of satellite imagery, researchers from the U.S. and China have developed a map that shows oil slick distribution. The findings show that oil covered a total area twice the size of France, and that more than 90% of oil slicks come from human sources such as river runoff and pipelines. Oil slicks are a huge detriment to the marine food chain, and can harm animals that come to the surface to breathe. There is hope that the study could lead to new methods to prevent oil spills and inspire international cooperation to protect marine environments.