Paloma Pimentel | Contributing Writer
With the recent fish kills and wall of seaweed surrounding Florida, human-led environmental degradation came to the forefront of Florida politics.
However, a Supreme Court ruling passed on May 25 fundamentally changed the CWA’s wetland protection authority through a redefinition of what is considered “Waters of the United States,” leaving millions of acres of wetlands across the country vulnerable to human intervention and environmental degradation.
In an interview with PantherNOW, Todd Crowl, director of FIU’s Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, detailed the implications the ruling would have nationally and on Florida’s wetlands, as well as discussing current FIU efforts in managing Florida’s water quality.
Crowl began by noting that almost half of the United States free-flowing surface water runs through intermittent streams that form during the Spring and Fall but dry out in the Summer and Winter. Under the new Supreme Court ruling, these ephemeral streams and wetlands can now be filled over, potentially putting countless communities at risk of flooding or in lowland areas, droughts.
“If we allow people to plow over or build infrastructure over these streams that flow after the winter snow melts in the spring, these streams will have nowhere to go, creating mass flooding and cutting the downstream river system that recharges other big rivers.”
He also noted how groundwater-fed wetlands would become especially vulnerable under the new ruling.
“Those are some of the most unique wetlands in North America associated with glaciation during the last ice age in the Northeast, which carved deep underwater poles creating bogs and marshes maintained through groundwater continuously seeping up.”
These previously protected wetlands, which did not feature any surface connection but a significant underwater chemical, physical or biological connection to large navigable waters, territorial seas, or interstate waters, determined by the CWA’s “significant nexus” test, are no longer protected.
In the case of Florida, Crowl highlighted the crucial role the state’s wetlands play in preventing flooding through its absorption of excess water, filtration of water, improving overall water quality and its importance in preventing coastal erosion.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the new Supreme Court ruling continues to identify states as primary regulators of their water resources so long as they follow the current definition for determining which “wetlands” are WOTUS.
That is to say, the FDEP continues to hold the responsibility of overseeing and approving permits on any projects that propose dredging or water-filling activities within state-assured waters through the state’s 404 program.
Thankfully much of Florida’s wetlands will continue to be protected due to their continuous surface connection to permanent bodies of water.
Moreover, Crowl commended the recently signed House Bill 1379, legislation that will raise the state’s water quality protections and place stricter limitations on private land acquisition, among other provisions designed to increase Florida’s overall water quality.
He also highlighted the funding received by Florida’s Everglades restoration project and federal government organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“NOAA[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has given us funds to work on new technologies that detect harmful algae blooms, and to see if we can detect any possible harmful wounds so that we can warn people before they become a health risk,” said Crowl.
Another example of CREST CAChE’s water quality initiatives include the implementation of buoy systems that measure water quality along Biscayne Bay stretching from North Bay Village all the way up to Government Cut, following the infamous August 2020 fish kill.
The data collected by the buoys is then utilized by South Florida’s Management District to control water quality levels.
Since then, CREST CAChE has continued to increase the buoy system, with Crowl predicting the implementation of 10 more buoys running along the bay by the end of the summer.
Yet, as he is quick to point out, this increased funding comes at the foot of continuous mediation and advocacy, with Crowl detailing the countless hours he has spent talking to state policymakers and business leaders emphasizing the importance of the state’s water quality.
More often than not, this advocacy took the form of explaining the economic benefits of having healthy coastlines, good water quality, and a restored Everglades on Florida’s tourism industry.
“That’s what they care about, but I don’t care why they care as long as they keep providing us funding to ensure we’re doing the right thing.”