Florida faces ‘environmental collapse’; Sierra Club demands action

By: - October 25, 2019 4:26 pm

An example of Florida wetlands. Credit: Julie Hauserman

The Sierra Club of Florida says dysfunction at the state government level is steering the Sunshine State toward environmental and economic collapse.

Environmental groups will continue to work for improvements, but action by Florida’s cities and counties may be the state’s best hope to minimize the damage, says Frank Jackalone, Florida director of the Sierra Club.

“We have four existential threats,” Jackalone says, naming climate change, renewed urban sprawl, water pollution and “political corruption” eroding citizens’ ability to fight back.

“We’re going to work with cities and counties to achieve real change in Florida,” Jackalone says. Eight cities already have resolved to run on 100 percent renewable energy no later than 2050. He said St. Petersburg, Orlando, Tallahassee and Gainesville are among those taking the lead, and others, but not enough, are moving toward solar power, cleaner water and sustainable, non-polluting communities.

“We’re going to really prioritize making that a statewide movement,” Jackalone says.

Gov. Ron DeSantis broke ground Friday on a reservoir project intended to sequester algae-laden outflows from Lake Okeechobee during wet seasons and to disperse clean water into the Caloosahatchee River during dry seasons. DeSantis called it “a big step forward in expanding one of our most important Everglades restoration projects.”

(The above paragraph has been corrected. Contrary to the original post, the Caloosahatchee River flows into the Gulf of Mexico and does not discharge water into the Everglades. We regret the error.)

On Oct. 16, DeSantis said he would ask legislators to require local utilities to upgrade facilities to prevent sewage and stormwater discharges into the environment, and to boost the Department of Environmental Protection’s oversight authority. The governor said his plan also would attack pollution involving septic tanks and agricultural runoff, and impose heavier fines on municipalities for polluting.

Environmental groups were skeptical, saying they haven’t seen his proposed legislation.

Calling Florida “ground zero” for climate change, Jackalone says the Sierra Club and other environmental groups want policymakers and citizens to protect Florida’s world-class springs, rivers, bays, estuaries, wild areas, wildlife, the Everglades, and the Gulf of Mexico itself. They want widespread use of clean, renewable energy, smart growth, and policies that slow down climate change – not just adapt to it.

Sierra also intends to spotlight lawmakers who vote against environmental protection, and to fight expanding barriers against legal processes where environmental challenges traditionally have been mounted.

“We need to restore our democratic process,” Jackalone says. He criticized, for example, how Senate President Bill Galvano pushed 2019 legislation to create new toll roads through rural areas – plans not recommended by state transportation planners and publicly condemned by environmentalists and citizen groups. Jackalone says such roads would, for “greed,” open rural areas to excessive development at the same time as coastal communities become inundated by rising seas.

After a period of slower growth, Florida’s business community now wants “massive development” and “urban sprawl” ahead of “self-fulfilling forecasts” of a wild increase in Florida’s population, Jackalone says.

“We’ve never seen anything like we saw in the toll-roads fight,” he says. “Why does Florida have to grow faster than any other state?”

Sierra Club national has designated Florida among its top five priorities for support, including efforts to support pro-environment candidates.

Jackalone and Government Affairs Director Deborah Foote also had these things to say Friday.

  • They welcome recent acknowledgment of climate change by state Republicans after a decade of staying mum, but “they waited until it hit them over the head.”
  • Without significant change, Florida in 50 years will “start to lose the Everglades for real.”
  • Tourism will increasingly suffer because hurricanes are getting stronger and more frequent, summers are hotter and winters are vanishing.
  • Coral reefs are dying, and toxic algaes are flourishing.
  • Scientists appointed by DeSantis are moving in the right direction but face “enormous pushback” from industry and business.
  • Plastics, pesticides, herbicides, chemicals used in fracking, chemical waste and even sunscreen must be stopped at the source to keep them out of Florida waterways.
  • Florida citizens are losing their right to fight bad environmental policy in court.

Florida Phoenix reporter Mike Moline contributed to this report.

An earlier version of the story included an inaccurate phrase about the Caloosahatchee River. The wording has been corrected. The river flows into the Gulf of Mexico and does not discharge water into the Everglades. We regret the error.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.