Commentary

Bills would help consultants make a killing off of killing off Florida’s seagrass

Senate ‘seagrass mitigation’ bill also includes coral and oyster reefs

January 20, 2022 7:00 am

Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), the largest of the Florida seagrasses, has deeper root structures than any of the other seagrasses. Credit: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

I have two kids, so believe me when I tell you that all parents are terrible liars. We constantly use what I call “feel-good lies” to make our kids feel better about the world we live in — even if our lying sometimes leads to bad results.

“Santa Claus brought you those gifts,” we tell our children on Dec. 25. “Santa” is actually a bleary-eyed mom or dad who stood in line outside Walmart at 5 am on Black Friday to get that season’s special toy at a discount. Mom and Dad do all the work, but their kid feels no gratitude toward them. Instead, the credit goes to that jolly old elf who doesn’t exist.

In Florida, there’s a feel-good lie that keeps popping up like a crop of mushrooms sprouting after a hard rain. It’s the claim that mitigation makes environmental destruction all right.

For instance, say you wiped out a 5-acre wetland to build that Walmart with the special toy. It’s OK with the permitting agencies, so long as you make up for the damage. You get your permit if you pay someone to create new wetlands to replace the ones you paved over.

Voila! Mitigation makes everything hunky dory.

Except for one problem: Repeated scientific studies dating to the ’80s have found that wetland mitigation frequently does not work.

Sorry if I just shattered your illusion that a fat guy in a red suit squeezes himself down your chimney every year. Scientific facts are merciless myth-busters.

Attempts to create manmade wetlands tend to create open ponds instead. While ponds do give our hungry gators a good place to live, they do not provide the benefits you get from natural marshes, bogs, and swamps. Those include flood protection, groundwater recharge, and habitat for a variety of birds and other wildlife.

But mitigation looks good on paper, especially when a well-paid consultant has dressed it up in some trickeration language about “enhancing” and “preserving” what they’ve done. This allows the permitting agencies to approve a developer’s permit.

In the mid-2000s, I worked with another reporter on a series of stories for the then-St. Petersburg Times that involved checking a lot of wetland mitigation all over the state, including reviewing a lot of businesses called “wetland mitigation banks.” Over and over, we found that the new “wetlands” failed to replace what had been wiped out. Some were actually dry land.

“It’s a huge scam,” one federal regulator told us. Another, just retired, said, “It’s a make-believe program.”

And now here comes legislation that promises to do the exact same thing, but with seagrass.

Manatees. Credit: Visit Florida.

You may have heard that Florida’s seagrass beds are in big trouble right now. We’ve lost tens of thousands of acres of them. Manatees are starving to death as a result. More than 1,000 died in 2021, many from malnutrition because they have no seagrass to eat. We may see more of them starve this winter.

House Bill 349 and Senate Bill 198 both would deal with this dire situation by creating seagrass mitigation banks, because hey, mitigation is great, right? At least on paper.

The seagrass banks would be run by private corporations that could sell mitigation credits to developers whose latest project destroys seagrass beds. To get the credits, the corporations would have to work on growing new seagrass in places it does not already grow.

Republican State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, representing Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade. Credit. State Senate.

On Tuesday, I watched the sponsor of SB198, Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez — who makes her living selling real estate — try to sell the idea of this bill to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

She also pitched an amendment that would broaden the legislation to create mitigation banks for coral reefs and oyster beds, too. When I heard that, I gaped. Not just seagrass but corals too? I looked forward to hearing Sen. Rodriguez explain all this.

But as soon as somebody asked her a question about the bill, the senator from Doral got flustered. You’d think the sponsor of a one-page bill would be well-versed in what the bill says, but apparently that is not always the case.

Instead, the senator beckoned the real advocate for the bill and its amendment, a lobbyist named Lori Killinger. The lobbyist stepped up to the mic and proceeded to answer all of the committee’s questions while the senator looked on. Nobody acted like this was anything unusual.

Ms. Killinger said she was there representing the Florida Association of Mitigation Bankers — which should tell you who’s planning to make a killing off the killing of seagrass, corals, and oysters in Florida’s waterways.

She said the amendment added coral and oyster reefs because “there are other things we can be helpful with … . This is a way of trying to make things better.”

Giving the bills a more accurate name

I got a better picture of who’s really getting the “help” when I watched a video of a December subcommittee hearing on the House version of the bill, which bears the generic name of the “Water Resources Management” bill.

One of the House sponsors is Rep. Toby Overdorf, who works as vice president of an engineering and environmental consulting firm. He made the real reason for the bill so plain that even a dumb old Florida boy like me could understand it.

Right now, when a developer has a project that will destroy seagrass, the state offers only two ways to mitigate the damage. One, developer can try to repair gouges left in the seagrass beds by boat propellers. Two, the developer can remove derelict boats that are shading the seagrass from getting sufficient sunlight.

That’s not enough to keep up with all the development that’s going on today, Overdorf told his colleagues.

Consultants in his line of work are having a hard time finding enough derelict boats to remove to make up for the projects that destroy a swath of seagrass, he explained. Without mitigation, they have a hard time nailing down a permit to allow the damage to go ahead.

“All this does,” he said about the bill, “is create a new way of doing mitigation.” He also referred to it as “a new tool in the toolbox.”

Republican State Rep. Toby Overdorf, representing part of Martin and St. Lucie County. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

Because this bill is so clearly designed to help Rep. Overdorf’s industry make its clients happy, I propose we change the name to the more accurate Assist Consultants Rake in Big Fees for Killing Seagrass Bill. I think that name would work on the Senate version, too.

Another good name would be the Rip Off the Public Bill.

You see, the place where these private mitigation banks would be growing seagrass (or trying to) would be submerged property around the state. That land belongs to the public — you and me and all our friends and neighbors and even that one blue-haired lady down the street with all the cats. It’s ours!

The governor and Cabinet are in charge of protecting all the publicly owned bay bottoms, estuaries, and other watery locations where there’s seagrass. Both bills call for these protectors to grant mitigation bankers the easements they need to use that public land for their seagrass-growing experiment. (I heard nary a word during either legislative meeting about the banks then paying the public so much as a penny for being allowed to use that property to turn a profit.)

“Experiment” is definitely the right word for what they’re planning. Trying to grow seagrass where it doesn’t already grow is about as easy as building a snowman in Boca Raton. It might happen, but odds are strongly against it.

One of the people who testified at both the House and Senate hearings was a biologist named Laura Reynolds from a group called Friends of Biscayne Bay.

One of the things she told the Senate committee was wrong with the bill was this: “The assumption [is] that planting seagrasses works. In my experience … I know that they fail. We’ve seen them fail, time and time again.”

In other words, these seagrass mitigation banks would likely fail too, leaving no way to make up for any development-destroyed seagrass.

When one senator suggested the solution is to require three acres of seagrass to be planted for every one acre that’s ripped out, Reynolds said, “I wish it were that simple. … It wouldn’t grow. It would fail.”

“Under the bill, it says we get smart people to oversee the planting, oversee the process,” objected that same state senator, Aaron Bean, who works as something called a “relationship development officer” for a Jacksonville hospital. (His comment made me wonder if he included himself in the category of “smart people,” and if anyone else ever did.)

Reynolds politely suggested that even someone with an IQ like Einstein’s couldn’t put the Humpty Dumpty of broken seagrass beds back together again. A major reason why planting seagrass fails, she said, is because in many cases the water is too polluted.

Gee, I wonder why the Legislature doesn’t do anything to fix that problem. Oh wait, that would require getting tough on some of their campaign contributors. Never mind!

Ask Santa for some seagrass

Currently, the closest thing to a seagrass mitigation bank in Florida is one proposed by Tampa Bay Watch, an environmental non-profit. It’s to be created on submerged land owned by the city of St. Petersburg.

Four years after this mitigation bank was designed, Tampa Bay Watch founder and president Peter Clark told me they still haven’t acquired all the necessary permits because it’s such an untested idea. Clark, in discussing the House and Senate bills, said he feels uneasy about the proposed use of publicly owned land by private, for-profit companies.

Despite its newness, this is far from the first time the Legislature has tried launching private seagrass mitigation banks on public land. In fact, in 2008, a bill similar to the pair introduced this year actually passed both houses.

But its backers tripped at the finish line. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it.

Crist, now a congressman, is running for governor again. As the political insiders would tell you, he’s got more baggage than the luggage carousels at the Miami airport. Nevertheless, he did a lot of good things for the environment when he held that office before, such as stopping the construction of a coal-fired power plant near the Everglades.

Crist, in his veto letter, cited what he called “serious concerns.” One involved putting public lands in the hands of for-profit corporations. Another was that to protect the mitigation banks’ handiwork, the public would have to be kept out of its own property.

He also questioned whether the public interest was served by letting a private company try to grow seagrass on publicly owned submerged land to make up for the destruction of seagrass elsewhere on other publicly owned submerged land.

“I feel strongly that this bill creates significant risks and raises constitutional issues that outweigh the positive benefits of this legislation,” Crist wrote in his veto.

Republican State Rep. Tyler I. Sirois, representing part of Brevard County. Credit: Florida House.

During the December meeting of the House subcommittee, another sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Tyler Sirois, talked about the Crist veto. Sirois claimed Crist rejected the bill because he didn’t think saving seagrass was in the public interest. To my surprise, no one called him a liar.

Both of the new bills passed their subcommittee and committee stops, despite strong opposition from environmental groups. Only a few legislators who seemed shaken by seeing firsthand the destruction of thousands of acres of seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon voted no and said that was why.

Sirois, who works for Brevard County’s prosecutor office, seemed to take that personally.

“If you’re of the mindset that we can’t risk losing any seagrass, well then, I tell you what, then we better stop development in our state right now. We better end it,” he said. “But that’s not a realistic option for us to make.”

So, I suppose we have to keep lying to ourselves that Santa will slide down our chimneys and make the seagrass grow where it normally wouldn’t (and the corals and oysters too). According to Sirois, it’s just not “realistic” for us to expect greedy developers to steer clear of killing stuff that we’ve lost way, way too much of already.

And if your kids want to see a manatee that’s not starving, maybe Walmart will sell you a toy one.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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