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The takeaway message:

A change to the federal Clean Water Act lifts protections for some wetlands and streams. Meanwhile, Florida legislators pass a law aimed at water quality improvement despite vocal opposition from environmental advocates.

What’s going on?

Last month, the Trump administration rolled back an environmental policy within the Clean Water Act. This action lifted protections for isolated wetlands, which aren’t connected to larger bodies of water, and ephemeral streams, which do not flow year-round. In other words, these affected areas are no longer considered “waters of the United States” under the Navigable Waters Protection Rule in the Clean Water Act.

Coined “The Dirty Water Rule” by opponents, the law change gives way for degradation of these habitats through dredging, filling and pollution.

In Florida, legislators are taking steps to improve the state’s water quality – but opposers say they’re not enough. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed “The Clean Waterways Act,” and this legislation:

  • Calls for the transition of septic system oversight from Florida’s Department of Health to its Department of Environmental Protection.
  • Bans wastewater facilities from leaking untreated sewage into Indian River Lagoon.
  • Prohibits local governments from granting the environment legal rights, a goal of the “Rights of Nature” movement.
  • Requires the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to conduct farm and ranch inspections and report fertilizer and nutrient records.

But 50 environmental groups opposed this law in a letter to DeSantis earlier this year, Fresh Take Florida reported, saying it doesn’t do enough for water protection.

Why it matters.

Our state’s tourism-based economy relies on clean beaches, springs and natural habitats to attract visitors from around the world. And many laws and policies are in place to protect these valuable resources — along with their natural draw and associated economic benefits. In fact, Florida’s nature-based recreation had a direct output of $1.913 billion in 2015 alone.

The recent policy changes, both nationally and in Florida, have the potential to affect the health of our waterways. For example, geographically isolated wetlands, like those mentioned in the update to the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, are “vital natural resources, important for maintaining the Nation’s biodiversity and wetland-dependent wildlife and for providing a host of other functions,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They are also among the most vulnerable wetlands, as adjacent land-use practices often pose harm to them.

In Florida, wetlands contribute to biodiversity by providing shelter, food and mating habitats for a variety of wildlife — 45% of which are rare and endangered. The ecosystems store carbon instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere, which helps mediate global climate change.

But more than 35% of the world’s wetlands have been decimated since 1970. In 2013, it was estimated that Florida had lost over 9.3 million acres of wetlands within the last two centuries — more than any other state. Development, agriculture, pollution, invasive species, erosion and rising sea levels have all contributed to this rapid disappearance.

Florida’s more than 50,000 miles of rivers and streams, including ephemeral streams, also contribute to the state’s water supply and wildlife habitats, along with its 7,800 lakes, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. But the problems Florida’s new Clean Waterways Act seeks to solve wreak havoc on these aquatic ecosystems. Leaky septic tanks and sewage systems can pollute water and compromise human health. Nutrient pollution from wastewater, stormwater and agriculture can lead to periodic algal blooms across the state; these blooms can be toxic to nearby humans and wildlife, drain oxygen from habitats and taint water.

What can I do?

Learn more:

• About Florida’s water policies, preserves and resources.

• About other environmental laws at risk of rollback.

• About the Rights of Nature movement.

• About Florida’s aquifers.


Other noteworthy “Florida waterways” news: