The Environment Florida Research & Policy Center released a new report showing that a good amount of wetlands remains in the flood-prone areas of the state to hold enough rain to cover Broward and Palm Beach in more than four feet of water. And the group is calling on the federal government to further protect these wetlands that help protect us from flooding. The study was released just as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers restoring protections for small wetlands and streams.
"Seventeen state and local elected officials signed on to a letter to Sen. Bill Nelson earlier this spring," Environmental Florida field organizer Jennifer Rubiello tells New Times. "They support restoring Clean Water Act protections to the 15,000 miles of streams in Florida and 20 million acres of wetlands nationwide that are open to pollution."
Currently, there are 9 million acres of wetlands throughout the state that help filter dirt and pollutants and provide home to rare wildlife such as herons, egrets, ibis, and alligators. The wetlands can also store vast amounts of water to protect communities against flooding. They act as a sponge and are the first line of defense against flooding, says Rubiello. But they're dwindling.
The main issue is that many of the state's streams and wetlands are no longer protected under the Clean Water Act because of a loophole created by what Rubiello calls "polluter-driven lawsuits" filed several years ago. The loophole has allowed developers to build over the wetlands and for power plants to dump pollution into streams.
Just last year, Florida Power & Light went before the Florida Public Service Commission requesting permission to collect $228,500 in public funds to lobby against proposed water rules by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Moreover, about 20 million acres of wetlands across the U.S. lack guaranteed protections under the Clean Water Act. Floods are the most common natural disaster in the U.S., causing an average of $8.2 billion in damage each year. Now the EPA is looking to restore safeguards for Florida’s wetlands and streams, just as the rainy season creeps around the corner. And things will only get worse as global warming continues.
According to the study, titled Shelter From the Storm: How Wetlands Protect Our Communities From Flooding, warmer air is able to hold more water vapor, leading to higher levels of precipitation during rainstorms. At the start of this decade, storms were already producing 9 percent more precipitation in Florida than they did in the 1970s.
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The study goes on to say that Florida's wetlands are very much at risk from even more development and pollution.
"We need to protect what's left of them," Rubiello says.
A ruling on the EPA's proposal for restoring the safeguards is expected to be finalized as early as next month.