Protecting Florida

We get to decide what the future holds

2022 Agenda for Florida’s Ocean and Coasts

The Sunshine State is blessed with incredible ocean and coastal environments and wildlife. At the same time, Florida faces tremendous environmental challenges.

We’ve lost more than a thousand manatees in a single year and tens of thousands of acres of seagrass in critical ecosystems like the Indian River Lagoon. Florida’s west coast red tide event in 2021 killed thousands of tons of fish and had massive impacts on the coastal economy, which generates billions of dollars for the Florida gross domestic product (GDP). The Piney Point disaster, a major environmental leak at the old fertilizer plant in Manatee County, shocked the state and the nation, as more than four hundred million gallons of toxic, nutrient-rich water spilled into Tampa Bay and fueled an already blooming red tide event. We marked another extremely active North Atlantic hurricane season by again running out of names for storms. Pollution and water quality problems seem to flow everywhere. Florida is “ground zero” for sea level rise, with more homes and businesses threatened by chronic flooding  than any other U.S. state.

For the Florida residents and visitors who have spent years enjoying the state’s beaches, waterways and wildlife, these threats raise difficult questions. What will happen to the places we love? Are the beaches and waterways we care about being destroyed? Will my children or grandchildren get to enjoy the same moments with the ocean that we grew up with? Are we on the verge of losing some of what makes Florida so special?

The good news is that Florida gets to answer those questions. The state is at a crossroads, and the legislature has an enormous opportunity during the 2022 session to tackle these challenges and ensure a healthy ocean and coasts for generations to come.

Sun rays behind Mangroves in Biscayne National Park, Florida.
Sun rays emanating from behind a large cumulus cloud over Red Mangrove trees in Biscayne National Park, Florida. © Francisco

Priority #1: Build on previous efforts to improve Florida’s water quality.

During the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions, Florida’s policymakers took important action to address the state’s water quality and quantity challenges. Senate Bill 712 was a significant step toward a better future for Florida’s waters, and the legislature should guarantee that Florida’s executive departments take steps to ensure full implementation of the law while making other targeted improvements to safeguard clean, healthy waters.

Opportunity: Strengthen the effectiveness of Basin Management Action Plans and Codify the Recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force.

The Blue-Green Algae Task Force (BGATF) was created in 2019 under Governor DeSantis with the goal of improving water quality across the state. The task force provided recommendations in 2020 that related to basin management action plans (BMAPs), agriculture, human waste, stormwater, technology, public health and science. The BGATF has made many proposals that will make significant headway in protecting our ocean and coasts against the ravages of nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms.

BGATF-inspired recommendations must include mandatory inspections for onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems, requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to develop an inspection program, implement minimum standards for system maintenance and operation and execute enforcement tactics to ensure compliance.

Ensure that BMAPs are among the primary, legally enforceable mechanisms to improve and restore water quality. These broad-based plans contain state and local commitments to projects and strategies that reduce pollutants to meet a total maximum daily load (TMDL)—the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water-quality standards. BMAPs contain a comprehensive set of solutions, such as permit limits on wastewater facilities, urban and agricultural best management practices, and robust conservation programs.

Under current law, however, it is unclear whether a legal requirement exists for a BMAP to contain the requisite projects and strategies needed to comply with a TMDL. Certifying that a legal requirement exists is an important step to ensuring these plans are effective at reducing the quantity of pollutants necessary to meet water quality standards. A small change to existing Florida Statutes (373.807(1)(b) and 403.067(7)) can ensure the projects and strategies contained in these plans achieve their intended goal: improved water quality.

DSC_0133_Florida_Lesley Ferguson.
© Lesley Ferguson

Priority #2: Ensure Florida’s resilience to a changing ocean and climate.

In addition to being “ground-zero” for sea level rise, Florida is facting other critical impacts from a changing ocean and climate. In fall 2021, Governor DeSantis wisely appointed a new Chief Resilience Officer to serve the state and work to tie together the myriad approaches across Florida to deal with the impacts of a changing climate. While many local governments have made resilience a priority for their own communities, a statewide strategy is necessary for meeting Florida’s resilience challenges head on. Making the temporary Chief Resilience Officer position permanent is critical to success in developing that strategy, and it must be funded via statute. Beyond codifying the position,, there are opportunities to build upon the package of resilience legislation championed by Speaker Chris Sprowls in the 2021 session. This legislation can create the needed mechanisms to protect the state’s coastal communities and all-important blue economy.

Opportunity: Statutorily establish a permanent Office of Resilience to be led by a statewide Chief Resilience Officer.

The responsibility for protecting Florida from rising waters and other resilience challenges falls to a multitude of different actors—from various state-level departments and agencies to local governments, regional planning board, and municipalities. The position of Chief Resilience Officer through the Office of Resilience should become permanent. The person in this role should be responsible for coordinating efforts among these various institutions to create a seamless, coordinated strategy and ensuring the responsible use of taxpayer resources to protect Florida.  Governor DeSantis has laid the groundwork in creating this role; the legislature simply needs to codify the position that should report directly to the governor.

Building on SB 1954—Statewide Flooding and Sea Level Rise Resilience, this will ensure accountability and provide a single point of contact responsible for planning and implementing a strategy to ensure the state’s resilience against rising waters and other challenges created by a changing ocean and climate.

Opportunity: Use the most up-to-date sea-level rise data in statewide projects.

Currently there are many projects underway across the state that necessarily need to include the impacts of sea-level rise as part of their plans. An example of this is the approval and construction of new bridges and causeways. Considering predicted sea–level rise for these projects will help  ensure safety for public users and longevity of the construction as project plans can be designed to accommodate a rising sea.

However, there is no consistency as to what predictions agencies should use, and the data used may be outdated or incorrect. For example, when designing the new 528 Causeway across the Indian River Lagoon and Banana River from the mainland through Merritt Island to Port Canaveral in Brevard County, the Florida Department of Transportation has not utilized the most recent sea-level rise projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This means that the causeway will be built to a lower height than what sea-level rise projections forecast, and, therefore, the causeway runs a much greater risk of being inundated and compromised by a rising sea.

State departments should use the most recent NOAA sea level rise data—a logical approach that will save billions of taxpayer dollars in the long run and will help to protect Florida’s coastal economy.

Manatees swimming in the ocean
© David Gross

Priority #3: Make common-sense changes to tackle marine debris.

No other state in the continental United States has more coastline than Florida. Our 800 miles of beaches are our pride and joy and are the reason that millions of visitors flock to the state each year. They  play a key role in the decisions of the more than 1,000 people who opt to move to Florida every day. Clean, healthy beaches are a keystone of Florida’s blue economy, and we need to take precautions to ensure that our beaches remain clean. There are some common-sense approaches on marine debris that are at the legislature’s immediate disposal for deployment in 2022.

Opportunity: Give municipalities the power to enact smoking bans on their beaches and ban smoking in Florida state parks.

Beyond being a well-established health risk, cigarettes present a significant harm to the Floridian coastal environment. Cigarette butts are fundamentally small fibrous bundles of plastic, and for 31 years they have been the most common item found on Florida beaches during the annual International Coastal Cleanup® held by Ocean Conservancy every September. Though seemingly inconsequential, there are hundreds of thousands of cigarette butts on beaches, and these impact wildlife and can break down, get into the food chain, and otherwise spoil our magical beaches.

Allowing municipalities and local governments to ban smoking in state parks will help keep this debris off beaches–a common-sense approach to the problem.

Ocean Conservancy is committed to protecting the health, economic viability and enjoyment of Florida beaches and waters. We will encourage the members of the 2022 Florida legislative session to take these priorities under advisement.

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Ocean Conservancy is working to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Together with our partners, we create evidence-based solutions for a healthy ocean and the wildlife communities that depend on it.

On the beach with Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones in Miami, Florida. © Isaac Mead-Long/Ocean Conservancy


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