On the Recent Everglades TV Ads in South Florida and what’s next in the Everglades Restoration

South Floridians may have noticed advertisements on TV recently sponsored by NGOs who work on Everglades Restoration. These ads are urging state lawmakers to use Amendment 1 money to buy land that will serve as a reservoir to bring water from lake Okeechobee down to the forever-water-starved Everglades. You will remember that this most recent election over 70% of Floridians voted for Amendment 1 to buy land for conservation purposes. In this blog, I have already made the case that this is not only a smart move economically-speaking but is also a common way for American states to fund conservation. In Florida, a state that runs on 1) the tourism sector and 2) the real-estate sector, selling houses overlooking the waterfront, any investment in functioning coastal ecosystems is an investment in our two main economic engines.

Florida Crystals, aka “Big Sugar” has come out against these advertisements and I wanted to make clear their reasons for doing so. Florida Crystals has its eyes on the prize, Governor Rick Scott’s $880 million long-term Everglades restoration plan (HB 7065) from 2013, which gifted $32 million a year towards cleaning up water run-off from South Florida farms. Let’s be clear about one thing: Florida has a polluter pays amendment, voted into existence by tax payers who were tired of paying to clean up the sugar industry’s runoff that fills our waters with unnatural amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, causing algal blooms, manatee and fish die offs, coral diseases (corals require low amounts of nutrients to thrive), sick wetlands, declining wading bird populations and so on and so forth. This $32 million dollars is a taxpayer-financed gift to Big Sugar, in effect flouting our constitution (polluter pays) and financing cleanup of their mess. I for one do not want to finance a multi-million dollar industry that is Big Sugar that lessens the environmental quality of Florida, and in doing so lessens the state’s main economic drivers.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program itself, enacted in 1990 and slated to cost between 9 and 12 billion dollars over several decades, is one massive effort to 1) restore freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park and 2) reduce the excess nitrogen and phosphorous runoff coming from the farms. Big Sugar is warning us that by buying this land, where water will run from Lake Okeechobee to the Glades, instead of gifting them $32 million will “derail” Everglades restoration. I would argue that enforcing polluter pays and making Big Sugar pay its own cleanup costs in addition to re-opening freshwater flow-ways to the Everglades is the only logical step forward. Please ignore their flailing.

image taken near Big Cypress

image taken near Big Cypress

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An Economic and Constitutional defense of Florida’s Amendment 1

Vote Yes on Amendment 1, here’s why.

Voters filling out ballots in the coming days for Florida’s November 4th election may have heard several arguments for and against Amendment 1. Many of the for arguments are environmental, and many of the against arguments are economic and legal. This blog entry provides an economic and legal argument in favor of Amendment 1. I have arranged the entry into a numbered list of the most commonly seen criticisms against Amendment 1 or the most commonly asked questions. I respond with rebuttals drawn from economic and legal scholarship. It is divided into 2 sections, starting with the legal section and ending with the economics. Skip to the ones that interest you, or read through as one piece.

Gator

Gator in the mangrove roots in Jonathan Dickinson State Park

The Legal Stuff:

 

  1. Is Amendment 1 a new tax?

No. Amendment 1, put quite simply, is an amendment to the Florida state constitution where we take a pre-existing tax (on deeds and other documents related to property) and channel a third of that revenue to a Land Conservation Trust Fund. The trust fund is set up to acquire pieces of land, like wetlands, forests, beaches and shores, rural landscapes. It can also purchase more “peopled” natural spaces, like working farms, ranches, open green space in cities, and land in the Everglades Agricultural Area. In other words, it is set up in order to purchase, protect, and restore the natural spaces that make Florida Florida. It will do this in a way where budgets for restorations are reliable and predictable.

  1. Why a trust fund?

A lot of important things in the U.S. are financed by taxes and the money is sent to trust finds. The most obvious example is Social Security, which takes a payroll tax and puts it into a trust fund. Also, the Highway Trust Fund used to build our nation’s interstates comes from your gasoline taxes.

 

  1. Is placing an environmental amendment in the state constitution an over reach of government power?

Some citizens groups criticize Amendment 1 saying that state constitutions are no place for amendments that deal with topical issues, like the environment. Even the most cursory glance of the legal scholarship on state constitutions would show you this is not true. Beginning in the 60’s and 70’s America saw a “flood tide” of constitutional updating, with environmental amendments as major components of these updates. Environmental conservation articles attached to state constitutions (such as Amendment 1) are commonly considered to be “fundamental inclusions” that are worthy of a state constitution. Florida, along with many other states (including but by no means limited to NY, MI, IL, PA, RI, and VA), has seen environmental amendments to its constitution made since 1970 (Source: Howard 1972).

  1. So if state constitutions have had environmental conservation amendments since the 1970s, then why are anti-Amendment 1 groups making this argument?

Well, they’re seeing what sticks, and recently, this sticks. Certain partisan figures, like those on talk radio, use the constitution to make opinionated claims about the proper size of government. The constitution (both federal and state) gets used a lot to justify rigid and ideological political opinions. These opinions often involve the scaling back of government services, such as environmental protection. The reality is that this type of environmental conservation amendment (in a state constitution) is by no means 1) an over reach of power by the state, 2) an example of government over-reach, or 3) a substantial deviation from what we are already doing in Florida.

In fact, I would say Amendment 1 is not big government at all, but status quo-sized-government. Why? Because state courts rely on what is known as “self execution” for constitutional amendments in order to determine if they’re legal. This means that the amendment needs to be a clear, complete, and enforceable rule. Amendment 1 takes a tax that already exists and sets the money aside to buy land for conservation purposes. (Source: Fernandez 1993).

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park

The Economic Stuff:

  1. Why conserve land at all?

Think about the following story. Imagine two identical houses, one with a view of the beach and the other one on a regular suburban block about 20 minutes drive from the beach. The one on the beach will sell for a far higher price because of its natural surroundings. People value nature and we display this all the time in our a market economy. This story symbolizes the economic value of Florida’s conserved resources, both to the people who live there and to the tourists who visit. Conserved land (and the ecosystems on them, like reefs, wetlands, forests, rivers) is a major component of Florida’s tourism economy. The Everglades received over a million visitors in 2013, and Big Cypress National Preserve another million. That’s a lot of hotels, rental cars, and meals in local diners.

These are the more visible and obvious ways to value conservation. In the following sections, I discuss the other types of economic value are harder to notice but equally (if not more) important. These types of values help answer question 2.

South Beach, Miami

South Beach, Miami

  1. Does the conservation of land mean that it is no longer useful in enhancing economic growth, because you can’t tax it or develop it?

No. Many organizations that have come out against Amendment 1 say that once you cordon off land for conservation, it becomes worthless to our economy. The exact opposite of that is true. These so-called economic arguments ignore 40 years of science and economics on the true economic values of Florida environments; I expand on this science in numbers 3-5 below. These arguments are dangerous because they present a false choice between economic development and conservation. Florida is a state built on the tourism industry, and the tourists are not coming for strip malls, polluted waterways, dead manatees, and parking lots, they are coming to sip a cold drink on our clean shorelines, charter a fishing boat to catch a big fish, or hike the Glades to see some big gators.

A boat for charter in Key Largo

A boat for charter in Key Largo

 

  1. What concrete economic benefits do lands used for conservation provide?

First, let’s think about ecosystems. Ecosystems are made up of all the plants and animals plus all of the soil, air, and water that they call home. We can easily recognize some common examples of ecosystems, such as wetlands, oceans, swamps, and so on. Florida ecosystems actually do a lot of things for us that we don’t really think about in our day to day lives, like giving us fresh water, land where can grow crops, coral reefs that can slow down big waves caused by hurricanes, fish for our blackened hogfish sandwiches and so on. We can call these things that ecosystems do for people “services” or “benefits”.

Ecosystems offer two types of economic benefits, ones that we can easily count (the price of a hogfish at the market) and ones that are pretty hard to count (the benefits from wetlands changing polluted runoff into clean drinking water—yes they can do this!). In Florida, the difficulty involved in counting up all of the ecosystem services and benefits means that they are constantly and systematically undervalued in public discussions on decision-making and the environment. We are making policy decisions without having all of the information first.

So where can we find this information on the real value of Florida’s ecosystems? For a few decades, thousands of scientists all over the world have been studying the economic value of these ecosystem services. The results of thousands of scientific studies are in a global database that is free and easy to use. I want to use just a small portion of their findings in order to show you a figure closer to the true economic value of just one Floridian ecosystem (Sources: Costanza et al. 1997, De Groot et al. 2012, Costanza et al. 2014).

Sunset at Everglades National Park November 2013

Sunset at Everglades National Park November 2013

  1. What would the economic value of conserving Florida’s swampland be?

It would take me a ton of time to go through every type of ecosystem that Amendment 1 would allow the state to purchase for conservation, so I’ll pick one: swamps (let’s call them wetlands).

I am first going to list the valuable ecosystem services that wetlands provide to people. Then, I use published science to list out the economic values of these services, i.e. what these environments are really worth, in terms of dollar amounts. Then, with this new information, we can return to the question of the economic value of conservation land posed in the beginning.

Specific Economic Benefits of Wetlands:

  1. Wetlands regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, turning it back into breathable oxygen through photosynthesis (a word that just means that plants are using light to make food). Wetlands lessen greenhouse effects that are responsible for a changing climate.
  1. Wetlands act like barriers to hurricanes, buffering coastal inhabitants from storm surge and flooding. Their dense plant life impedes and slows storm surge, and they hold water that could otherwise flood our communities in hurricane season.
  1. Wetlands supply us with drinking water.
  1. Wetlands, through chemical processes that are hard to see, actually create very fertile soil for agriculture. This is why the big area just south of Lake Okeechobee was converted into farmland (the Everglades Agricultural Area). This is also why there is so much agriculture around the Everglades and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
  1. Wetlands cycle waste into clean water, and they also clean polluted water that is filled with nutrients from fertilizers and animal wastes, or other types of runoff.
  1. Diseases and the things that cause them (think mosquitos and West Nile virus) are soaked up and concentrated in swamps, away from us and our communities.
  1. People come from all over the world to boat, fish, and hike in our wetlands. Over a million people came to Florida to enjoy the Everglades and another million for Big Cypress National Preserve. Count their car rentals, hotels, meals, and souvenirs, and that is a lot of money.
  1. Wetlands provide food such as fish (channel catfish, blue gill, panfish, redear) and plants that can be used for pharmaceuticals.

One way that you can think of the economic values is considering how much we’d have to pay if we had to replace all of the wetlands in Florida, and instead cleaned and treated all of our water in manmade facilities? What would it cost us to remove all the fertilizer runoff ourselves? What would it cost us to build flood control structures for storms?

air plants in an Everglades slough

air plants in an Everglades slough

  1. Now we know what they do for us, but how much are these services actually worth?

The first thing that we need to establish is that Florida has 8 million hectares of wetlands. How big is a hectare you may ask? A hectare is a metric unit for 10,000 square meters. Think of a professional soccer field. This is a bit smaller than a hectare. So any value you see here needs to be multiplied by 8 million in order to calculate the real annual economic value statewide of Florida wetlands.

Say we only wanted to compute the value of hardest to count services, i.e. the value of services 1-6 in my list above. These services put together are worth $171,364 per hectare of wetland per year. So take this value, and multiply it by 8 million hectares of Florida wetlands. We get an annual benefit to the state of Florida worth 1.37 trillion dollars annually.

What about the value for the last two services on my list (7-8) recreation and fishing? Wetlands provide $25,000 per hectare per year in total services. Again, multiplied out by the total Florida wetland area is over $200 billion dollars in recreational services.

Breaking down some specific services, let’s look at wastewater treatment. This alone is worth $3015 per hectare per year. Across Florida, this service is valued at over $24 billion. Wetlands prevent flooding when those famous Florida afternoon storms hit. This service is worth $5607 per hectare of wetland each year. Across the state, wetlands preventing floods can be valued at $44 billion.

What about the services that ecosystems provide to just animals, are these of any value? Consider how wetlands serve as habitat for Florida species of birds and fish. Well, those seemingly animal-only values and benefits are a bit more complicated than they seem. The wetlands serve as nurseries to many species of fish that grow up to become commercially valuable. The economic value provided by one hectare of wetlands that act as a nursery for juvenile fish is over $1287 per hectare per year. Multiply this out across the state, and you are talking about a value approaching 10 billion dollars.

The sources of these numbers are several studies that examine every single estimate made on the valuable things that environments do for people across thousands of studies all over the world. Is it 100% accurate and unique to Florida wetlands? No, but at the very least, it gives us a new way to think about economics and the environment not limited to simplistic policy choices. Think of it like a model of a town: there are exaggerations in scale, along with things that are too small or left our completely, yet it still helps you see the lay of the land. But it is not the town itself. (Source De Groot et al. 2012, Costanza et al. 1997, Costanza et al. 2014).

Rich farmland adjacent to Everglades National Park

Rich farmland adjacent to Everglades National Park

Conclusion

If I were to do this for all of the different ecosystems that Amendment 1 would protect for the people of Florida, values would be in the trillions. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, these ecosystems could include “wetlands, forests, fish and wildlife habitats, beaches and shores, recreational trails and parks, urban open space, rural landscapes, working farms and ranches, historical and geological sites, lands protecting water and drinking water resources and lands in the Everglades Agricultural Areas and the Everglades Protection Area.”

So, next time you hear about environmental conservation costing Florida tax payers a ton of money, think about the services ecosystems provide for us that we cannot see every day, that are hard to count, or the ones that we take for granted, and then think about the immense economic value they have to Florida society.

References:

Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., Groot, R. D., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., … & Belt, M. V. D. (1997). The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital.

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S. J., Kubiszewski, I., … & Turner, R. K. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change, 26, 152-158.

de Groot, R., Brander, L., van der Ploeg, S., Costanza, R., Bernard, F., Braat, L., … & van Beukering, P. (2012). Global estimates of the value of ecosystems and their services in monetary units. Ecosystem Services, 1(1), 50-61.

Fernandez, J. L. (1993). State Constitutions, Environmental Rights Provisions, and the Doctrine of Self-Execution: A Political Question. Harv. Envtl. L. Rev.,17, 333.

Howard, A. D. (1972). State Constitutions and the Environment. Virginia Law Review, 193-229.

The unofficial, emblematic symbol of Florida, the manatee

The unofficial, emblematic symbol of Florida, the manatee

Why your vote for The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District really matters if you care about Florida’s reefs and coasts

I wrote this for a non-scientific audience.

I am a diver, I know a lot of people who dive, and I know a lot of those people detest state level politics. I think this is a really big problem for us folks who love Florida’s coasts, its oceans, reefs, and fish. The way we look after our natural resources is a political and economic choice that we have a lot of impact on based on how we vote. I believe that people who care a lot about the environment tend to think that its management is the job of technical people, scientists and engineers. But I would argue that the people you vote for hold the power to utterly ruin the way we look after out natural resources, by setting anemic budgets, non-existent allocations, and removing agendas altogether, in effect decimating management organizations at the state level. Rick Scott, I’m looking at you. I would also say that these are incredibly myopic decisions, since so much of the state’s economy is completely dependent on healthy and functioning ecosystems. Environmentalism is not an afterthought, it is the framework on which our state economy gets built.

Governor, judiciary, amendments aside, as many local newspapers already do a pretty good job analyzing the environmental impacts of these candidates, I am here to write about the little known Soil and Water Conservation District. As somebody who cares about Florida’s healthy coral reefs, fisheries, and coasts, why does this particular elected position have so much importance to Palm Beach County voters?

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

Loggerhead on Gulfstream Reef, Delray Florida

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District is the local government agency that helps farmers implement best management practices in agriculture. Agricultural best management policies reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, and other pollutants entering the Florida water resource system. What does that have to do with our reefs, fish, and coasts?

Agricultural runoff from land sources (farms) is one of the biggest causes of serious stress to Florida’s reefs. Runoff has two components that cause major biological problems: sediment and nutrients. Sediment clouds our coastal waters and blocks reefs from their critical life source: sunlight. Sunlight is required for a photosynthetic algae living in the coral tissue (“photosynthetic” is just another word for when a plant turns light into food). These algae are a critical part of the coral animal, and if they are not making food, the coral cannot grow and continue to be part of a healthy reef. They also give coral their color by the way.

Nutrients from the agricultural runoff also increase when best management practices for soil and water are not followed. This results in unchecked growth of algae that coats coral reefs and also blocks the sunlight. In addition, when the microscopic plantlife throughout the coastal waters (“phytoplankton”) have a lot of nutrients to work with, they bloom in full force, die, and deplete the oxygen that is naturally dissolved in the water. This kills large amounts of fish in a very short time, coating the beaches and shorelines with rotting fish. This has impacts on commercial and recreational fishing, and similar scale blooms have been linked to record breaking manatee die offs. Some algal blooms are natural, but many, with increased nutrient supply are not.

The definitive scientific study of excess sediment and nutrient content on coral reefs shows that when runoff increases, so too does coral mortality, algal blooms, and muddy water. Some things that decrease with runoff are: coral cover on the reef, the strength of the hard calcium carbonate skeletal part of the coral (i.e. more brittle corals), and the diversity of corals (Fabricius 2004). More diverse reefs lead to healthier reefs that are more capable of absorbing shocks, like disease or a big storm with waves that hammer the reef. Think of it like the backup players on a football team, talented and numerous backups make for a stronger team during an unexpected injury. When you lack strong backups, you have the Florida gators 2013 season.

The agricultural land in Palm Beach County is a significant source of runoff that not only impacts our near shore reefs, but also those of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (LaPointe et al. 2004). Thus, the choices we make have far reaching impacts that in turn, affect the dive/marine/fishing economy in the entire state of Florida. This is an industry in which millions of Florida residents make a living.

Economically speaking, we need healthy reefs even if we don’t dive. Reefs protect and buffer coastal settlements (our homes) from the big storms we get during hurricane season. Reefs also buffer settlements from the constant wave action that has produced hometown surfing greats like Kelly Slater. Reefs provide nursery space for commercially valuable fish species to reach a size where we are allowed to fish them. And most relevant to me, as graduate student living in frosty Cambridge, MA, they attract a lot of money (millions and millions of dollars) in tourism revenue each year from divers, snorkelers, and visitors to our national parks, beaches, and barrier islands.

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

Foureye Butterfly fish and a barrel sponge off Briny Breezes reef

The Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District helps farmers implement best management practices for decreasing runoff, sediment, and excess nutrients that end up making their way to our coasts and our ocean environments. It is an education-based agency, whose elected board does not receive a salary. It is not public knowledge how their budget gets spent (spare generalities, i.e. “we spend it on outreach”), or how effective their education programs actually are in practice. As we all know, you can print as many brochures as you want, but whether or not they actually have an impact is another thing.

There are two candidates: Eva Webb and Karl Dickey. Here are my thoughts on them. Originally, all of the Gadsden Flags scared me off from Karl’s site, as Libertarians tend to reduce Florida’s environmental problems to a false equivalency between private property and conservation, a gross oversimplification that ignores many of the hard-to-count economic and financial benefits that healthy environments offer people and their livelihoods. He is not that type of libertarian though. He is plugged into environmental thinking, has some great ideas about good governance and accountability, and has vision on how to reshape the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized area surrounded by not only agriculture but also fragile ecosystems. Despite my effort, I could not get ahold of Eva Webb. From what I gather, she has ties to the Florida Farm Bureau (Assistant Director of Field Services), an agricultural lobbying/interest group. Just to put it in perspective, the national level American Farm Bureau called their 2010 meeting “”Global Warming: A Red Hot Lie?” Yikes. However, a big part of the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District remit is to engage stakeholders, and perhaps her ties to agricultural interest groups may help with that. Perhaps it is a conflict of interest. I tried asking, and I don’t have an answer.

Whoever you vote for, just make sure you vote. Divers are a significant part of the marine economy, which is in turn a significant part of Florida’s golden goose: the tourism industry.

Papers I mentioned in this blog entry:

Fabricius, K. E. (2005). Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis. Marine pollution bulletin50(2), 125-146.

Lapointe, B. E., Barile, P. J., & Matzie, W. R. (2004). Anthropogenic nutrient enrichment of seagrass and coral reef communities in the Lower Florida Keys: discrimination of local versus regional nitrogen sources. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology308(1), 23-58.

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach

Moray Eel off Briny Breezes Reef, Boynton Beach

Goliath Grouper, and stakeholder perceptions: my response to the Outdoor Hub Piece on reopening the Florida Goliath stock

There are many problems with the recent article entitled “Florida Anglers Call for Goliath Grouper Harvest” on Outdoorhub.com. I want to address some of them as a graduate student of ecosystems science, politics, and policy primarily of the marine and coastal environment.

  1. Stakeholders and agreement around the reopening of the stock:

The article starts out by asserting the following: “Florida Anglers are now calling for officials to open up the goliath grouper population to fishing.” This has the misleading effect of presenting the issue as though everyone in Florida who recreates on the ocean would like to see this stock open for fishing. Though Florida leads the nation in recreational angler spending per person ($3 billion dollars annually in state) these voices are not the only voices, and they are not the only contributors to the marine economy, not by a long shot.

Take the dive economy in South Florida for example. Scuba diving accounts for a quarter of all recreational activity on reefs, yet there are no voices in this article (and other articles like it) from dive industry stakeholders on reopening the grouper stocks. Individual expenditures per dive trip have been estimated by the following studies, put in a table in the National Ocean Economics Program Florida-specific report. When you consider there are millions of divers in Florida, and multiple trips per person per year add up to millions of person days of diving, you are looking at substantial economic earnings:

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 10.22.26 AM

  1. Asking spear fishermen for population data

One of the critical elements to my own research on nearshore fisheries and coral reefs in Indonesia and Malaysia is soliciting the perceptions of local fishermen in assessing environmental health. I believe in the power of the local resource user in any fisheries assessment. There are many examples in the literature of the usefulness and wisdom that the voice of the angler may provide in a stock assessment.

That said, one of the most glaring problems with this article is that the two voices who give evidence for the stock’s recovery are spear fishermen. The problem with anecdotal evidence is just that, it is anecdotal. It is also biased by the fact that grouper are a large (read: highly visible) species that tends to aggregate (read: be in predictable places at predictable times) and because of this, it may give spear fishermen the misleading impression of total stock health, in terms of recruitment rates, biomass and so on. The reality is, this is a social, economic, political and scientific problem. When we only hear from the people who have major interests in and recreational hobbies that center on harvesting grouper, we are hearing one piece of problem with many pieces. It is an echo chamber.

  1. Stories like these build mistrust between scientists, ecosystem managers, and recreational anglers

The problem with stories like these is that points 1 and 2 that I make above create a false impression that the stock has definitely recovered (though considerable uncertainty remains) and that all stakeholders want the stock reopened (though this is definitely not the case).

Thus, when recreational anglers hear that the stock remains closed, despite what journalists like this are saying, trust and goodwill are lost in what can and should be a worthwhile collaboration between state and national level fisheries management agencies, scientists, and resources users like anglers and divers. It veers a scientific, socio-economic, and political issue into the realm of the conspiracy theory (i.e. scientists/ NOAA/ Obama/ whomever are trying to keep the stock closed because of bureaucratic rigidness/anti-angler mentalities/ insert conspiracy here.)

Angler or ocean sportsman publications like this would do better to make a reasoned, economic, ecological, political case for the type of harvest they would like to see, instead of spreading misleading information to get clicks. They should also do better to inform their readers of the many dimensions to the conversation, so that they aren’t limited to the echo chamber.

EPA Coastal Data Contest Winners

This week it was announced that Iain and I won the coastal data contest held by the US EPA’s National Aquatic Resource Survey (NARS, link here). We will use the $2000 prize to write up our formal analysis for the grand prize in January.

Our paper linked benthic ecosystem data over time with socio-economic data from coastal communities in Florida and the Gulf region whose economies depend largely on the marine industry. We used a categorical output of ecosystem health as a function of median income, percent of the local economy dependent on marine resources, and several other socio-economic indicators.

The final part of the contest involves actually running the numbers in our proposed statistical model, and is due in January. Until then we will continue to survey the work already done that links communities in Florida and the Gulf and their blue economy.

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge Florida Keys

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge Florida Keys

 

Islamorada Florida

Islamorada Florida

 

Vast Setbacks for Everglades Restoration

Something big just happened in Florida, and because of the seemingly complicated and bureaucratic nature of the Everglades restoration, many South Floridians may not know exactly what is at stake.

photo (1)

This past week, the Army Corps of Engineers refused to get behind the Central Everglades Planning Project’s request for federal funds from Congress. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) is a 50-50 cost share between the state of Florida and the federal government. The Central Everglades Planning Process (CEPP) is a new phase of the restoration that I will describe in more detail later on. Money from the federal end comes from the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA—often pronounced “word-a”). WRDA’s are intended to fund the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake projects in “flood control, navigation, and environmental restoration.” They are supposed to happen every two years, but due to Congress’ recent inability to get itself together, we have not had one since 2007. The everglades restoration as we know it today was born out of a 2000 WRDA. These spending authorizations are critical to the Everglades project and similar restorations all over the United States.

This blog is often critical of the governor of Florida Rick Scott, and his seeming vendetta against environmental restoration and regulation in Florida. But when you view the disproportionate amount of time, energy, and money that the state of Florida has put into the Everglades restoration, when it is supposed to be a 50-50 split, you can see where the hesitation comes from to invest even more state money in the projects.

CEPP is a very unique thing. Decades of criticism over delays in the Everglades Restoration that include the red tape, political infighting, bureaucratic stalling and finger twiddling, have lead to the long overdue idea for CEPP.  Beginning with its overall purpose, CEPP is the solution the never-ending shortage of water that plagues the Everglades ecosystem. Without adequate “sheet flow” of historical amounts of water into this wide, shallow river, ecosystem functions collapse.  Ecosystem functions are very important to people because they provide goods and services that enhance our own wellbeing, and include: water filtration, nutrient cycling, disease sinks, erosion protection, and an extreme weather buffer. Where CEPP stands out is in its revolutionary planning process, using a combination of new forms of public engagement and outreach as well as hard deadlines to shrink the planning phase for projects down from 6-8 years to 18 months.  This “slimming down” has major implications for costs. The output from this process is a PIR, or project Implementation report that outlines plans for specific projects within the restoration.

Image

Red: Everglades Agricultural Area. White: CEPP target area (notice it is the heart of the Everglades system)

Over the past three years, I have conducted surveys of those working at the federal and state level on CEPP and CERP. Of these groups, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Taskforce, in conjunction with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) stand out. The web presence they have built in the name of public engagement and transparency means that you can follow along with all public meetings and hearings on the development of CEPP from the comfort of your home. Transcripts from all meetings and presentations are there for public viewing. According to one senior official I spoke with in the SFWMD, this streamlined process they’ve designed for CEPP deals with the fact that “what takes the SFWMD a year to do often takes the Army Corps of Engineers 8 years.”

photo (1) copy

This begs the question, even though Governor Scott, the SFWMD, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, Florida’s members of Congress, and environmental NGOs could all agree over the passing of CEPP, why did the Army Corps of Engineers fail to approve it? Besides some bureaucratic jargon over uncertainty and some sort of failing to meet an opaque and vague set of standards, the public has largely been kept in the dark about their reasoning and who pulled the plug on CEPP. It is disappointing that a visionary planning process so dedicated to public transparency has just been squashed by one of the most opaque bureaucratic entities in the country. Worst of all, without rapid action, we will miss the deadline to be included in the current WRDA. This would render CEPP in limbo, without half the funding it needs to continue the restoration.

Florida manatee die off: advocate science and adaptive management

Recently I received an email from a conservation activist in the South Florida area asking me for some type of data or study that shows a causal relationship between runoff-sourced pollution, algal blooms, and the 2013-2014 manatee die off crisis.  As I noted in a recent blog entry on manatee population dynamics and pollution, part of the reason that the manatee die off will not trigger an immediate policy response is that these hard scientific links do not exist. That doesn’t mean that the causal relationship isn’t there. It means we have not yet had the money to fund a study, the time/wherewithal to keep stakeholders interested in funding and undertaking the study, or a long enough time span to establish causality.

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A juvenile manatee curious about our kayak

In other words, you cannot say, “This study that I hold in my hand says that lawn runoff and industrial agriculture pollution are permeating Florida’s waterways at unprecedented levels. Enforcement is lax or nonexistent in favor of development and agriculture, and as a result, our report shows that this runoff is causing algal blooms that lead to conditions where manatees die at never before seen rates.”

I responded with a bit of information from Larry Susskind and Jeffrey Cruikshank’s iconic book in dispute resolution: Breaking the Impasse (1987) . The book describes “advocate science,” where stakeholders (especially those with a lot of power and money) could hypothetically hire their own experts to produce scientific and technical pieces that blur the links between marine pollution and marine mammal die off.  Or even worse, they could produce a study showing pollution has no adverse effects on marine habitat or food source (seagrass beds) for manatees using evidence skewed to produce the desired result. As recent investigative pieces have shown, advocate science can reach criminal levels especially when large corporations are involved.

How to proceed?

The precautionary principle says that when facing a scenario where scientific consensus doesn’t exist, the burden of proof is on industrial agriculture and the fertilizer industry to prove that runoff is not the source of algal blooms endangering the already endangered manatee.  Besides the precautionary principle, Florida possesses a polluter pays amendment in the state constitution, granting statutory precedent to holding industry financially accountable for their negative externalities. Lastly, the theoretical and practical scholarship on adaptive management has empowered agencies in the past few decades to make better environmental management decisions as time goes by (and as information increases through monitoring and data collection).  Federal and state natural resource agencies universally rely on adaptive management, and acknowledge that it allows for decision making on environmental policy and management in the absence of absolute certainty.

We are seeing some momentum in Florida (maybe) towards development of scientific consensus on the manatee die off, and what policy to implement in order to react to the crisis. Much of this information is scattershot, hard to find, or hidden behind paywalls. Perhaps it is because the fertilizer industry is a major funder of the science behind the health of the Indian River Lagoon, one of the major manatee die off habitats?