FGCU wetlands expert Bill Mitsch hails Biden rollback of Trump water rule

Eminent scholar says SWFL waters to benefit from EPA, US Army rewrite

Eminent scholar Bill Mitsch is praising a new definition of US waters that will protect Southwest Florida waters and wetlands against pollution. (Photo: Facebook)

June 14, 2021 by David Silverberg

In an act directly benefiting Southwest Florida and its waters, President Joe Biden’s administration is rolling back a Trump-era rule allowing unregulated pollution of streams and rivers.

Bill Mitsch, eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), hailed the announcement, made last Wednesday, June 9.

“It’s a good move,” Mitsch told The Paradise Progressive in an interview. “I’m happy because it’s the right direction.”

In January 2020, Mitsch vehemently denounced a rule under President Donald Trump that relaxed restrictions on water pollution, calling it “a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA” and saying its imposition was “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago.”

Michael Regan, EPA administrator, announces rollback of the Trump water rule . (Photo: AP)

Last week’s rollback announcement was made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army, which oversees the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps plays an outsized role in Southwest Florida water management.

“I’m delighted both agencies have stepped forward,” said Mitsch. “This, in my view, is a good turn for Southwest Florida and especially the Everglades.”

The EPA and Army will be revising the definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS) to “better protect our nation’s vital water resources that support public health, environmental protection, agricultural activity, and economic growth,” according to the announcement.

Under the Trump administration, WOTUS was redefined under the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to hold that the Clean Water Act did not apply to waters like streams, creeks and rivers that were not navigable or not adjacent to navigable waters.

Put another way, these waters could be subject to unregulated pollution and exploitation. This affected tens of thousands of waters throughout the United States. It was particularly harsh on Southwest Florida with its innumerable wetlands and arid regions like the Southwest United States.

“After reviewing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule as directed by President Biden, the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that this rule is leading to significant environmental degradation,” Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, stated in the press release announcing the rule change. “We are committed to establishing a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from the lessons learned from the current and previous regulations, as well as input from a wide array of stakeholders, so we can better protect our nation’s waters, foster economic growth, and support thriving communities.”

The EPA and Army will now start a process of remanding the Trump rule and redefining WOTUS, while restoring the water protections that existed prior to 2016. It will try to keep waters clean, use the latest scientific and climate change data, take into consideration practical needs and build on the experiences and input of water purity stakeholders.

From feds to Florida and the challenges ahead

Mitsch warned that while the Trump rule rollback was a major step in the right direction, it did not end the challenges to water purity, especially in Florida.

Mitsch has long experience with WOTUS and definitions of “wetlands” and “waters.” In the 1990s he worked with the federal government’s scientific bodies to define “wetlands” properly only to run up against Vice President Dan Quayle, who wanted the definition to favor builders and developers.

“This is déjà vu all over again for me,” said Mitsch. “It’s the same issue that keeps coming back. It’s quite contentious.”

“Waters” and “wetlands” have been officially defined twice before, according to Mitsch.

“I hope they don’t get on a third definition that’s political and not scientific. I hope they have the stamina to go through with it,” he said of current efforts. “There is no such thing as a [legitimate] political definition of a ‘wetland’—otherwise we might as well throw out all our scientific books.”

Mitsch is especially concerned that the state of Florida’s takeover of wetland permitting and environmental protection from the federal government will result in a degradation of Florida’s wetlands and waters. Authority for wetland permitting was transferred from the US EPA to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection in December 2020 in one of the last official acts of the Trump administration.

“I’m very much afraid of Florida taking wetland management away from the feds. What the feds are doing is great but I’ve seen it before,” he said.  “There’s no question why [the state] wanted to take over water regulation, it was for development.” While he said he was discouraged that “the train is out of the station in Florida, I hope the momentum of this [new federal rule] spills into Florida somehow.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Donalds Dossier: Firing Fauci, supporting suppression, bashing the border

Rep. Lauren Boebert (left) and Rep. Byron Donalds listen to a briefing during a trip to the southwest border. (Photo: Office of Rep. Byron Donalds)

151 days (5 months) that Byron Donalds has been in Congress

June 3, 2021 by David Silverberg

The five-month anniversary of Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) taking office might have been a fairly innocuous milestone, except that yesterday, June 2, he decided to issue a gratuitous and unnecessary attack on—of all people—Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Anthony Fauci (NSIAID)

And not just Dr. Fauci, either. In true Trumpist fashion he decided to go after the media as well.

“Fake news media outlets like @CNN continue to praise Dr. Fauci as the hero of COVID-19. When has the media or Dr. Fauci ever been right? Read the emails and #FireFauci,” Donalds tweeted.

What prompted this was the release under a Freedom of Information Act request of thousands of Fauci’s e-mails during the height of the pandemic.

It’s not clear which CNN report on the e-mails aroused Donalds’ ire, since there have been a number of them. But one CNN commentary by Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine and a CNN medical analyst, praised the doctor.

“Throughout [the e-mails], his on-paper voice sounds just like his television voice,” stated Ranney. “He is humble, curious and committed. My takeaway? He is just like us—or, at least, he’s how most of us like to imagine ourselves to be, on our best days.”

That would be in stark contrast to Donalds’ idol, Donald Trump, for whom the words “humble, curious and committed” could never apply.

But Donalds saying that Fauci has never been right is pretty rich coming from a man who contracted COVID last October. It was a failing in the eyes of Trump that prompted him to ignore Donalds’ existence when Trump passed through Fort Myers in October 2020.

Donalds, a vehement anti-masker at home, in the halls of the Capitol and in the council rooms of Southwest Florida who to date has not revealed whether he’s received any vaccine or will be getting any, was lucky to recover without too much damage. The same cannot be said for the 1,046 people in Lee County and 571 in Collier County who have died from this scourge (based on Rebekah Jones’ figures).

What’s most surprising about Donalds’ tweet is that it was completely unnecessary, brought him no political capital or advantage with the possible exception of COVID-deniers like Alfie Oakes, and puts him on the side of lunatic fringe for whom Donald Trump is always right and people who rely on facts and data, like Fauci, must always be wrong.

But then again, that’s where he was anyway.

Out of the bubble, into The Times

Astead Herndon (NYT)

On May 22, Donalds finally stepped out of the right-wing media bubble he’d carefully inhabited. The New York Times published an interview conducted by reporter Astead Herndon, in which Donalds insistently defended Florida and Georgia’s voter suppression laws.

Donalds said that one of the best aspects of Florida’s new law was getting rid of “ballot harvesting,” collecting other peoples’ ballots to cast them.

“You know, I think the process we have now going forward in our state is actually a good one,” said Donalds. “Everybody’s free to request their ballot. They prove who they are, that’s a good thing. They receive their ballot, they vote. It’s all about security.”

“Ballot harvesting was already outlawed in parts of the state,” pointed out Herndon. “And new lawsuits claim that the real impact of the identification measures will be another barrier suppressing Black and Latino voters. What’s your response to that?”

“I don’t pay any attention to those claims,” responded Donalds, who went on to say that he believed the state law would be upheld in court.

A reader can sense Herndon’s mounting frustration and growing skepticism as the questioning went on but Donalds remained adamant. As any experienced interviewer knows, sometimes short of grabbing a subject by the lapels and screaming “you’re wrong!” there’s not much an objective journalist can do to shake the truth out of an obdurate subject. Being a reporter for a credible, objective newspaper, Herndon wasn’t about to do that.

At least Donalds’ opinions are now on the record somewhere beyond the Trumpisphere, regardless of what Donalds thinks of the real media’s credibility.

Grassroots, water and the border

Beyond these events, Donalds was careful during the past month to tend to the grassroots in his district. Apparently sensitive to criticism that he was neglecting Southwest Florida in his quest for publicity and ideological prominence and sacrificing local concerns in favor of endless bashing of President Joe Biden’s attempts to help Americans and end the pandemic, he made some efforts toward reaching out to local groups who would give him a favorable reception.

Southwest Florida is facing a summer water crisis and Donalds duly visited Lake Okeechobee with other Republican lawmakers during the past month. However, when water advocates gathered at Moore Haven to advocate for a particular water release plan by the Army Corps of Engineers, Donalds sent a surrogate.

However, he himself headed to the Southwest US border with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.), another extremist member of Congress, to denounce Biden border policy, as part of the general and ongoing Republican offensive.

Legislatively, Donalds’ Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act made no progress in House committees. He did, however, finally introduce some text to his other legislation, the RESCUE Act. However, since passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, that proposal is largely moot. A third piece of legislation, introduced on May 7, to prevent sharing trade information with the World Trade Organization, had not received any text from Donalds.

Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, has now moved on to denouncing the administration’s budget proposal and taxes on the ultra-wealthy and corporations to pay for it.

With the arrival of June 1, Donalds now goes into his first hurricane season as a member of Congress. He’s already been part of the insurrectionist political storm. It will be interesting to see how he weathers storms from nature.

523 days (1 year, 5 months, 5 days) until Election Day

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom

Demonstrators demanding action to combat red tide protest a campaign appearance by then-Gov. Rick Scott in Venice, Fla., in 2018. (Image: Indivisble SWFL)

May 26, 2021 by David Silverberg

–Updated May 27 with new link to Stafford Act

This summer Southwest Florida seems headed for a Big Bloom on the order of 2018’s disastrous summer.

Blue-green algae is flowing down the Caloosahatchee River as a result of Lake Okeechobee water releases.

Red tide is blooming in the Gulf of Mexico. This year there’s the added threat of blooms as a result of the dumping of millions of gallons of polluted water to relieve pressure on the Piney Point wastewater pond, or “stack” near Tampa. This has likely fed blooms in that area that could drift southward.

People living along the Caloosahatchee are already breathing the toxins and smelling the stench. Red tide alerts have been issued along the beaches.

All disasters—and harmful algal blooms (HABs) are disasters just as much as hurricanes—have political implications. What will be the political impact if there’s a big bloom this year? Were any lessons learned from 2018 and are they being applied? How will Southwest Florida’s politicians react this time around? And can anything be done differently—and better?

Recapping 2018

In 2018 Southwest Florida experienced an extremely heavy concentration of river algae and Gulf red tide at the same time. It went on for roughly a year, first appearing in October 2017 and then intensifying and peaking in the summer of 2018, finally breaking up in the late fall.

Red tide is naturally occurring in the Gulf and had appeared and broken up before without any major impact on the region. River algal blooms had been minor inconveniences. This was not expected to be any different.

But these blooms lingered and intensified. In contrast to 2017, which had seen Hurricane Irma and lesser storms in the region, there were no major storms in 2018, which may have allowed the blooms to fester. The extremely heavy rainfall of 2017 may have been a contributing factor. The precise relationship between tropical storms and algal blooms remains unclear.

The Big Bloom didn’t just ruin a few peoples’ beach time or boat trips; it was significantly damaging to the area’s economy. It became a national story that dampened tourism and reduced hotel occupancy. Based on surveys filled out by area businesses, 152 or 92 percent of surveyed business owners stated they had lost business due to the red tide in the Gulf. Of them, 126 or 76 percent stated they had lost $500,000 or more. Others estimated losses between $20,000 and $2,000.

The bloom was also a serious health hazard to those who lived along waterways and had no means of escape.

Authorities at all levels were slow to recognize the blooms as a disaster or their magnitude and respond in any way. In addition, it was an election year, so elected officials were distracted by their need to campaign.

At the federal level, Donald Trump was president so environmental issues were ignored or had a low priority.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) was running for the Senate. He had been a strenuous denier of climate change and avoided dealing with environmental questions. Scott banished the term “climate change” from the official vocabulary in Florida state government.

Then-Rep. Francis Rooney, representing the area from Cape Coral to Marco Island in Congress, was largely engaged in supporting Scott while running his own re-election campaign, so he was distracted as well.

Furthermore, the area’s elected officials, media and a good portion of the politically active population simply denied or ignored the impact of overall climate change on the region and its possible role in the disaster.

While the bloom was at its worst in the summer and early fall of 2018, officials were largely helpless. No official edict or action could stop the bloom. While the voters would not allow the incumbent candidates to completely ignore it, candidates did their best to minimize it or distract voters away from it. Late in the crisis Scott declared an emergency and made a paltry $13 million available to the affected businesses.

After the election was over, Rooney took the lead in attempting some kind of response. In May 2019 he pulled together a conference of all the affected region’s elected officials and four relevant federal agencies to attempt a discussion of the HABs and future response. It was briefly attended by the new governor, Ron DeSantis (R), who in contrast to Scott, made environmental issues a priority.

Unfortunately, the conference, held at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), was closed to the public, so the full extent of its discussions, conclusions and decisions will never be known publicly.

Rooney did report out some of the discussion in an op-ed that ran in local newspapers under different titles.

After establishing that federal response to HABs was inadequate and uncoordinated with local authorities, participants concluded that the relevant federal agencies needed to be more aware of HABs as potential disasters and keep local jurisdictions informed of their formation and potential impacts. In addition to agencies that have direct, line responsibility in the event of a HAB like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had roles to play.

For his part Rooney introduced two pieces of legislation: one to classify HABs as major national disasters so that local businesses and residents would get disaster relief, and another to ensure that HAB monitoring and response were not interrupted by government shutdowns. Neither bill passed into law during the 116th Congress.

He also introduced changes to help with HABs to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the massive, comprehensive congressional bill that covers all water infrastructure, which was signed into law at the very end of 2020.

What’s different in 2021

There has been considerable change on many fronts since the Big Bloom of 2018 that may help with the response if there’s a big bloom this year.

Monitoring, reporting and information

A major, obvious change from 2018 is the amount of information available to the public on the state of algal blooms in general, which also translates into more information about local blooms. This is a vast improvement over 2018 when such information was either unavailable or fragmentary.

Government agencies and jurisdictions established websites on HABs after 2018.

(A full list of public links regarding Southwest Florida HABs is at the end of this article.)

This year there are also mechanisms for local jurisdictions to share information with federal agencies, enabling much better monitoring of HAB outbreaks and providing a much more comprehensive view of both national and local situations than was available in 2018.

Gubernatorial and state involvement

In 2018 then-Gov. Rick Scott’s hostility to environmental issues and solutions was infamous and came back to bite him during the Big Bloom.

Gov. Ron DeSantis got off to an early and very popular start when he took office in 2019. He dropped the hostility to science, creating the position of Chief Science Officer. He boosted funding for Everglades restoration and dismissed the South Florida Water Management District Board for a sweetheart lease with the sugar industry. He also dropped Scott’s prohibition on using the term “climate change.”

The DeSantis administration also established Protecting Florida Together, a Web portal for monitoring and communicating environmental and water quality information to the public. While heavily promoting the governor, it provides useful and presumably accurate data on the state of algal blooms and red tide.

This alteration in gubernatorial attitude is a sea change from 2018. Simply having a state administration that is aware of environmental issues can provide some public confidence that solutions are being sought, which was not previously the case.

Federal expertise

Another sea change was the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, who ran a campaign that took environmentally-friendly positions on major issues. Since his inauguration Biden has made major efforts to boost environmentally-friendly policies and combat climate change.

Biden’s climate team is particularly expert in water issues. Michael Regan, the current EPA administrator, is especially familiar with HABs, having confronted a major bloom in North Carolina, where he served as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. In July 2019 he canoed the state’s rivers to see the bloom for himself.

If this year’s algal bloom rises to the level of EPA administrator for action, Southwest Florida officials will be working with an EPA head who intimately knows and understands the problem.

Upgrading and modernizing US drinking, wastewater and stormwater systems is a major aspect of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan. While it may not directly impact this year’s blooms, over the longer term it will address the underlying conditions that lead to the blooms, hopefully mitigating or eliminating them. However, it is still in negotiation between the White House and congressional Republicans.

Locally, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has already attacked the plan as simply being the Green New Deal in disguise and for proposing new taxes on corporations and the extremely wealthy to pay for it.

Legislation

It is on the legislative front that there has been the least amount of progress in coping with HABs in general or this year’s potential bloom in particular.

In 2019 then-Rep. Francis Rooney proposed two pieces of legislation to deal with HABs: The most important one was the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act, which consisted of a three-word amendment to The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which would add HABs to the official roster of major disasters eligible for federal aid. This would make Southwest Florida businesses and residents eligible for a variety of federal support if businesses or livelihoods are damaged by a bloom.

Rooney’s bill went nowhere during his term in office and there is no renewal in the offing.

The second proposal was the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, which would ensure that HAB monitoring by federal agencies would continue despite any government shutdowns, a situation less urgent than under Donald Trump. That bill too went nowhere during Rooney’s tenure. It was reintroduced by Donalds on March 17 as House Resolution 1954 and as of today it remains in committee awaiting consideration.

Legislation can’t stop a bloom while it’s happening—but it can mitigate the harm from one and protect people from indirect effects in the future. However, there has been no progress on this front to date and Southwest Florida will go into a 2021 bloom as unprotected legislatively as in 2018.

Analysis: Progress and challenges

Make no mistake: there has been progress on coping with algal blooms since 2018.

There’s been much more research into the nature and causes of blooms and efforts to mitigate their causes, like Lake Okeechobee pollution and phosphates flowing into local waterways.

A big step forward was the founding of the Water School at FGCU on March 22, 2019. This is a major addition to the university, dedicated to researching and examining all aspects of water. While still being developed it’s in a position to make a major contribution to fighting the blooms this year, providing timely and detailed information to officials at all levels and the public at large

In addition to the governmental and legislative measures, localities have been experimenting with technological fixes to contain or eliminate river algae. Public health authorities are far more aware of the health impacts of algal toxins and their dangers.

Even if this year’s bloom blossoms into a crisis on the order of 2018’s, politicians now have precedents to inform their behavior, unlike the example of Rick Scott, who as governor and a Senate candidate fled from red tide protesters in Venice during a campaign swing.

But the lessons of the past don’t just apply to political campaigning and the quest for higher office; they also have to assist in managing the disaster itself.

As a general rule, disasters favor incumbents. A sitting governor, mayor or public official can be seen as vigorous and commanding if he or she appears to take charge. But an official also has to deliver real results. People may not remember a good disaster response but they never forget a bad one.

For businesses, that means being assisted with disaster recovery funding, which is why amending the Stafford Act is so important.

And perhaps the greatest lessons to be taken away from the 2018 Big Bloom are the intangible ones: that big blooms are dangerous; they’re damaging; they really hurt people and businesses; they can be economically devastating; they need to be taken as seriously as any hurricane; they need to be monitored and, to as great an extent as possible, countered early; and all jurisdictions have to coordinate and cooperate in their responses.

Also, algal blooms, like the pandemic, don’t discriminate between political parties or persuasions. Algal toxins and their consequences affect everyone equally.

So Southwest Florida is somewhat better prepared and knowledgeable than it was in 2018 if there’s a big bloom this year.

But as always with disaster management, there’s still a long way to go.


Further resources:

Federal:

NOAA (Current conditions):

CDC (General information): Harmful Algal Bloom-Associated Illness

EPA (General information)

State:

Local:

Lee County

  • While Lee County has a red tide and algae bloom status website, it is badly out of date—in fact, it seems to have frozen in 2018 and refers to Rick Scott as governor. Nonetheless, for the record, it is at: https://www.leegov.com/waterqualityinfo.

Cape Coral

Collier County

City of Naples

  • While the Naples City website links to the Collier County information, it also provides a phone number for recorded updates on conditions in Collier County: (239) 252-2591.

Non-Profit, non-governmental advocacy organizations

For a deeper dive into the political aspects of disaster response see the book Masters of Disaster: The Political and Leadership Lessons of America’s Greatest Disasters on Amazon Kindle.

Liberty lives in light

©2021 by David Silverberg

Biden climate team is good news for Southwest Florida

President-elect Joe Biden announces his climate and energy team nominees at The Queen Theater in Wilmington Del., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Dec. 23, 2020 by David Silverberg

When President-Elect Joe Biden introduced his new climate, energy and environmental team last Saturday, Dec. 19, he presented the nation with a group of veteran officials and activists who know the issues and, to a striking extent, understand water and the challenges surrounding it—and appreciate the water problems Florida faces.

The importance of this is not to be underestimated. Now, when Southwest Florida officials make their case for Everglades restoration funding or try to fight harmful algal blooms or try to reduce pollution in regional waterways, they’ll be talking to veteran experts in high places who know their water.

It’s a stark contrast with the years under President Donald Trump, when the Interior Department was headed by a fossil fuel industry lobbyist, when regulations were only good for being abolished and climate change was derided as a “Chinese hoax.”

Instead the new team’s experience and expertise bodes well for Southwest Florida’s waters.

Six top nominees were presented. Their backgrounds show extensive water-related experience.

Gina McCarthy, National Climate Advisor-designate.

Gina McCarthy (Photo: EPA)

Gina McCarthy headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama and has 30 years of environmental activism under her belt.

After leaving the Obama administration she became an advisor to a private equity firm, Pegasus Capital Advisors, then became director of Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. In 2019 she was named president and chief executive officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most consequential environmental activist organizations.

Under Biden, McCarthy will head a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a counterpart to John Kerry, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate, who has been named special climate envoy and will likely be reintegrating the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement.

At the American Water Summit in Miami, Fla., in December 2016, McCarthy called water “one of the top public health and economic challenges now facing our country” and said: “We need to move away from the narrow 20th century view of water: as a place to dump waste; as something to just treat and send downstream in pipes; as only an expense for cities and a planning burden for communities. We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.”

Ali Zaidi, Deputy National Climate Advisor-Designate

Ali Zaidi

An immigrant from Pakistan, Zaidi grew up outside Erie, Pennsylvania.

In the Obama White House, Zaidi served as Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He and his team helped execute economic and environmental policy on a wide array of policy, budget and management issues affecting $100 billion in funding. At OMB, he was responsible for implementing the presidential Climate Action Plan, which he helped design and draft. He was also a negotiator of the Paris Climate Agreement.

In a December 2016 posting on the White House website that looked back on a year’s progress on a water innovation strategy, Zaidi wrote: “Water supply challenges are felt around the world; in fact, water scarcity tops the World Economic Forum’s list of long-term risks to the health of the global economy.”

The response of the Obama administration—and Zaidi—was to formulate new tools and partner with the private sector to “develop and deploy the technologies and practices that both conserve water and generate new, clean supplies.” Doing this included laying out clear technical targets and mobilizing people, investors and technicians to achieve them. “The strategy focused on new cost-effective climate solutions to spur new American businesses and jobs,” he wrote.

At the time, Zaidi thought that the administration’s initiatives were having a measurable impact “and the momentum is irreversible.” That might have been overly optimistic given the four years of President Donald Trump’s administration.

 This time around Zaidi will have a lot of repair work to do before he can launch new initiatives—but Southwest Florida can be confident that he knows water and its importance.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior-designate

Deb Haaland (Photo: Deb Haaland for Congress)

Much of the focus on Rep. Deb Haaland (D-1-NM) has been on the fact that she would be the first Native American to serve as Interior Secretary. Of much more significance to Southwest Florida is the fact that in parched New Mexico, water is a precious commodity and Haaland has concentrated on the policies related to it.

Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican of the Pueblo of Laguna. The daughter of a US Marine, she lived all over the United States, attending 13 different public schools during her education. She was long an environmental activist before being elected to Congress in 2018.

“Water is life. We must ensure the availability and integrity of this resource for generations to come,” she wrote in 2017 in her campaign for Congress. “Climate change is a national security threat and it should be treated as such. Just take a look what is happening in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico.”

Haaland is anti-fracking and opposes offshore oil drilling, both key issues for Southwest Floridians. She will represent a complete change from current Interior Department policies, which Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) once characterized as “drill, baby, drill.”

Michael Regan, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator-Designate

Michael Regan (Photo: Karen Chavez, Citizen Times)

Currently Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Regan served in the EPA under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He received his degree in earth and environmental science from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and earned a master degree at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

“We will be driven by our convictions that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water and a healthier life, no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin or the community that they live in,” Regan said when he was introduced by Biden.

A North Carolina native, Regan’s top priority in that state was coal ash cleanup from energy operations. He negotiated a settlement with Duke Energy to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash. He also focused on climate resilience, sea level rise, reducing animal waste pollution from farming operations, chemical toxins in water and mudslides, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. He had to do this despite a 40 percent cut in DEQ personnel.

Last July, when a North Carolina river registered a major bacteria bloom, Regan took to the water himself, canoeing on the river and holding a discussion with local officials, businesspeople and activists, as reported in the local Citizen Times.

“We have a water quality issue in North Carolina. We have an infrastructure issue in NC,” Regan said. “We don’t want to lose our globally competitive position. We want to continue to grow economically. This is a moving train and we don’t plan to slow down. We have to continue moving forward in a smart way.”

The DEQ’s Water Resources Division oversees nearly 60,000 stream miles in North Carolina and maintains seven field offices. While Florida and North Carolina have different climates and water issues, Regan certainly knows the fundamentals of water management and policy.

Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy-Designate

Jennifer Granholm during the Flint, Mich., water crisis (Photo: CNN)

Jennifer Granholm served two terms as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011 and as the state’s attorney general prior to that.

As Energy Secretary, water and environment will not be her primary concerns. But that doesn’t mean she’s unfamiliar with water crises and challenges.

In 2014, when the city of Flint, Michigan changed its drinking water source, a failure to inhibit corrosion in its pipes led to severe lead poisoning among residents. It was a huge scandal. Granholm had long left office and was serving as a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. But distance didn’t keep her from expressing some choice words for her Republican successor, Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I would want to see pedal to the metal, hair on fire action in Flint. And I think [Snyder], right now, can do that,” Granholm told The Detroit News when the crisis broke. “But if not, then I think somebody should come in who can look at [it] as the emergency that it is and move heaven and earth to get those pipes replaced.” She called on Snyder to move to Flint and live in one of the affected houses.

Brenda Mallory, Council on Environmental Quality Chair-Designate

Brenda Mallory

Established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) plays a strategic and advisory role, helping to devise overall policy.

Biden has nominated Brenda Mallory to chair the CEQ. She served as its general counsel under Obama and is currently Director of Regulatory Policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center,

“Mallory brings deep and versatile expertise working directly with communities and partners across the public and private sectors to solve climate challenges and advance environmental protection and environmental justice,” Biden said in introducing her.

“Though she’s never had a high public profile, Mallory is widely considered to be one of the country’s top experts on environmental regulatory policy,” stated the National Resources Defense Council when she was named.

Analysis: Opportunity and promise

Under President Joe Biden, when Southwest Florida’s officials or representatives bring a water issue to the administration they can now be assured of a knowledgeable and likely sympathetic hearing by top officials. This is a major step forward for the region and one that should not be squandered by congressmen locked into a rigid, hostile ideological approach to the new administration.

There’s another opportunity for Southwest Florida presented by the new administration team and an environmentally sensitive Congress driven by science and aware of climate change.

The planned building of the FGCU Water School. (Art: FGCU)

It is just possible that the new Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) would have a better chance than ever to become a recognized national center of excellence. Working with the new administration, it may just find its federal grant applications are given higher priority and its research may be applied more broadly.

Certainly, once the new administration takes office—and even before—it would behoove FGCU to reach out to the new team, invite them to FGCU to see the facilities, host some international conferences, integrate its work and research with national priorities and lobby vigorously for its own needs.

The expertise, activism and familiarity with water issues of Biden’s environmental team provide a source of hope and opportunity. After a long, dark time for Southwest Florida, its waters and those who care about them may finally feel some sunshine.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Trump suddenly attacks pandemic relief bill, dealing heavy blow to Southwest Florida

President Donald Trump in his Twitter video last night, denouncing the pandemic relief bill just passed by Congress. (Image: White House)

Dec. 23, 2020 by David Silverberg

President Donald Trump’s sudden attack on the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed by the House and Senate on Monday, Dec. 21, deals severe blows to Southwest Florida and to the provisions that benefit the region.

Yesterday, Dec. 22, Trump, without warning congressional Republicans, issued a 9-minute, 53-second video on Twitter. In it he explained his reasons for trying to overturn the results of the presidential election and then denounced the laboriously negotiated and passed Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The bill funds the US government through the next fiscal year but most importantly to most Americans suffering from the pandemic, it provides $600 in payments to those who have lost their jobs.

Equally important, it provided funding for COVID vaccine acquisition and distribution.

In his video, Trump called the bill “a disgrace,” attacked it for funding foreign aid and a variety of domestic purposes and demanded that it provide $2,000 for each American.

House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) immediately agreed to try to provide the $2,000, this after weeks of negotiations during which they struggled to get Republican negotiators to raise the relief amount from an original offer of $300 to $600.

“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks,” tweeted Pelosi. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000—Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”

The bill includes provisions directly affecting Southwest Florida that were inserted by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).

According to Diaz-Balart, the bill funds local infrastructure, school safety, Everglades restoration, agricultural support and housing programs for low-income families and the homeless. Patients are protected from surprise billing and, in a move of particularly local interest, the Moore Haven Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee is re-named in honor of Julian Keen, Jr., a Florida Wildlife Conservation officer who was killed in LaBelle in June while trying to stop a hit-and-run suspect. (The full text of Diaz-Balart’s statement is below.)

Of critical importance to Southwest Florida is the inclusion of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in the bill. WRDA provides authorization for every water-related infrastructure project in the country and has been a particular focus of Rooney’s efforts.

When WRDA was finalized earlier in the month he stated: “Passage of WRDA is an important step in finally advancing the 68 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects that have been previously approved. These projects will significantly reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee, reduce the toxic algal blooms that have plagued us in previous years, and improve overall water quality in SWFL.”

As Rooney points out, the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Watershed include 16 counties and 164 cities. They have a $2 trillion economic impact on the state and support $1.3 trillion, or 55 percent of the real estate value in Florida. Four dollars in economic benefits are produced for every dollar invested in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Watershed.

The bill that Congress passed includes $250 million for Everglades restoration for fiscal 2021.

Analysis: Coming up next

While Trump has not formally vetoed the appropriations bill, it is unclear what the next courses of action will be, since it cannot be finalized without his signature. As Pelosi noted, she may try to get a new version of the bill passed through “unanimous consent” in which all the members of the House agree to simply pass it without objection—dubious in this Congress.

Otherwise, the entire 5,593-page bill will have to be renegotiated and passed by both House and Senate before Dec. 29 when funding for the government runs out. If Congress cannot do that, the government will shut down and the results will be truly and fully catastrophic: vaccines will not be purchased or distributed, Americans will not get any financial pandemic relief and the economy is likely to crash. All this will come when coronavirus cases are peaking, Russia is hacking the US government without any resistance or defense at the highest level and Trump is continuing to resist and deny the outcome of the presidential election.

If Trump had objections to the bill while it was being negotiated he should have expressed them and his concerns would have been incorporated at an earlier stage. But that kind of involvement in governing and attention to detail is not his style and all reports are that he simply ignored it.

Southwest Floridians should make no mistake about this: they are directly affected by Trump’s incompetence, grandstanding and mismanagement. People who don’t get coronavirus care or the vaccine will die—likely in large numbers. But perhaps the chaos and distress he is causing is exactly what he intended.


Full statement on the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart following its passage:

“The FY2021 funding bill includes big wins for our nation and for Florida. This bill prioritizes funding to enhance our infrastructure, support our military and law enforcement, and strengthen our national security. In addition, school safety remains a top priority, Everglades Restoration receives a significant influx of funding, and programs that our farmers and growers rely on will continue. It also supports critical housing programs such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Homeless Assistance Grants.

“Attached to this bill are several legislative priorities, including an end to surprise billing—patients will now know the real cost of a scheduled procedure before it takes place. Additionally, this bill includes the final version of WRDA 2020, thereby ensuring the Moore Haven Lock and Dam is renamed in honor of fallen FWC Officer Julian Keen, Jr.

“We have already seen Florida capitalize on the programs these bills fund, and with its passage today, our state will continue to benefit from them moving forward.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

US House passes Water Resources Development Act; makes changes to SWFL water management, Lake O

US_Capitol_west_side 3-2-19

July 31, 2020 by David Silverberg

On Wednesday, July 29, the US House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), House Resolution 7575, by a voice vote.

A version of the bill having already been passed by the Senate, the bill now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature into law. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was a co-sponsor of the original bill.

The massive bill, which authorizes all water-related projects in the United States, has several sections directly related to Southwest Florida. (For earlier coverage of WRDA, see: “We tested SWFL candidates on their knowledge of a vital congressional issue. Here are the results.”)

In summary, the bill makes reforms to address problems raised by harmful algal blooms of the sort that plagued the area in 2018. At the time there were gaps in understanding and coordination among federal and state agencies; this bill addresses those.

It also tries to minimize the water releases from Lake Okeechobee (Lake O) that have been widely blamed for cyanobacteria blooms.

Lastly, it tries to speed work on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

In particular:

  • The bill orders a study of harmful algal blooms, which have plagued Southwest Florida and were particularly severe in 2018. This will be a demonstration program to study their causes, detection, treatment and prevention. Lake Okeechobee will be a particular focus along with the Great Lakes, New Jersey, Louisiana and California.
  • Projects related to CERP have been dragging on for many years. The bill orders their expedited completion, in particular feasibility studies for the C-43 reservoir. If the Secretary of the Interior determines that a project is justified, he can proceed directly to preconstruction planning, engineering and design. In addition to CERP, the bill expedites projects in Arizona, California and another South Florida project, the C-111 canal, in southern Dade County. It also makes changes to earlier WRDAs to authorize a proposed reservoir south of the Everglades Agricultural Area.
  • When it comes to regulating water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the federal government will finally take into account levels of cyanobacteria and “evaluate the implications” of stopping the releases and “seek to minimize unnecessary releases to coastal estuaries”—which in the case of Southwest Florida means the Caloosahatchee River. The Department of Interior will also coordinate the efforts of federal and state agencies responsible for “monitoring, forecasting, and notification of cyanobacteria levels in Lake Okeechobee.”
  • In addition to minimizing potentially algae-blooming water releases, the Secretary of the Interior is now required to issue a monthly public report about the volumes and statistics of Lake O water releases.

Despite its other changes, the bill is careful to ensure that nothing changes from the current situation around the lake—known as the “savings clause.” As the bill puts it: “nothing shall be construed to authorize any new purpose for the management of Lake Okeechobee or authorize the Secretary to affect any existing authorized purpose, including flood protection and management of Lake Okeechobee to provide water supply for all authorized users.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

FGCU wetlands professor blasts Trump water rules, calls for citizen action

09-27-18 Big CypressA view of the Everglades.                             (Photo: Big Cypress National Preserve)

Jan. 24, 2020 by David Silverberg

President Donald Trump’s rollback of protections for streams and wetlands is “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago,” according to Prof. Bill Mitsch, a globally recognized wetlands expert and eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).

“This is a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA,” he wrote in a statement posted on LinkedIn.

IMG_5022
Prof. Bill Mitsch, 2019

“I have followed this tug of war for all these years between those who appreciate the many ecosystem services that wetlands provide, including cleaning our waters, sequestering and permanently storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and providing the best habitat for hundreds of threatened and endangered species, and the industrial-scale agricultural, energy, and real estate giants” he wrote. “It has always been a David vs. Goliath [battle].”

Mitsch was writing after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday, Jan. 23, finalized a rule that removed protections for many of the nation’s streams, rivers, wetlands and groundwater.

The rule was part of the “Waters of the United States” rule put in place in 2015 under the administration of President Barack Obama that protected a variety of streams, rivers and wetlands from pollution, in particular those that ran intermittently or underground and served as sources for larger bodies of water.

The Trump rule, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” eliminates many of the previous protections, meaning that developers and industries no longer have to get permits under the Clean Water Act before dumping waste and pollutants like pesticides and fertilizers into many waterways. However, it continues regulation of larger, navigable bodies of water.

“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all: the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the United States rule,” Trump boasted on Sunday at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Austin, Texas. “That was a rule that basically took your property away from you.”

In Southwest Florida, with the Everglades and badly polluted rivers like the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie rivers flowing out of Lake Okeechobee, the rollback of protections could have a significant impact, especially on future algae blooms.

In response to a question from WINK-TV on the impact of the new rules on Southwest Florida, an EPA spokesperson stated:

“The waterbodies mentioned in your question – the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee River, and Estero Bay – are jurisdictional under the previous regulations and will remain jurisdictional under the new rule. Under the new rule, perennial and intermittent tributaries to these waterbodies would be regulated as ‘waters of the United States.’ In addition, those wetlands that are adjacent (as defined in the new rule) to these waterbodies and their perennial and intermittent tributaries would be ‘waters of the United States’ under the new rule.”

“Jurisdictional” waters are those still regulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

As the EPA explained in its statement:

“In the Clean Water Act, Congress explicitly directed the EPA and the Army Corps to protect ‘navigable waters.’ The Navigable Waters Protection Rule regulates these waters and the core tributary systems that provide perennial or intermittent flow into them. The Navigable Waters Protection Rule establishes four clear categories of waters are federally regulated:

  • The territorial seas and traditional navigable waters,
  • Perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters,
  • Certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments, and
  • Wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.”

However, it follows from the Trump rule that if waterways are not navigable or do not flow into a protected body of water or if wetlands are not immediately adjacent to jurisdictional waters, they’re no longer protected and can be subject to unregulated pollution.

Comment from Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), who has made water purity a centerpiece of his congressional tenure, was unavailable as of this writing. Similarly, there was no comment from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) who has made water quality a priority of his administration. Nor was there any comment on the state water website, Protecting Florida Together.

Mitsch, who has spent his entire career studying wetlands and who has proposed a natural cleaning method he calls “wetlaculture” to clean polluted wetlands like the Everglades, put out a call for action in the wake of the Trump regulatory rollback.

“I am calling for those of us who appreciate some of the good things that nature has provided for us, whether you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, to speak out about the rape of our landscape that will surely follow this action. I especially call upon those who are in the business world to help establish environmental bonds, local and state ordinances, and novel approaches to save our remaining wetlands. I also call upon the children and young adults, who are much more knowledgeable about wetlands than their parents and grandparents, to join the ‘silent majority’ who appreciate the role of wetlands to move forward, with or without our Federal government, to save our planet.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Review: Florida’s new water quality website; the good, the bad and the really ugly

11-7-19 Florida website

Nov. 7, 2019 by David Silverberg

On Monday, Nov. 5, amidst much hooplah, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) unveiled a new state website, https://www.protectingfloridatogether.gov/, designed to inform Floridians of the state of their water quality.

The website has taken criticism for having outdated information but this may simply be a function of its newness.

But how well does it work as a website? The Paradise Progressive did a tour and can report the following:

  1. All non-scientific information functions as a DeSantis propaganda machine.

Here are the top four headlines and excerpts from their lead sentences:

WATER QUALITY IS A TOP PRIORITY FOR FLORIDA

That’s why, less than 48 hours after being sworn in, Governor Ron DeSantis issued an Executive Order outlining his bold vision…

STATEWIDE EFFORTS

Governor DeSantis directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)…

BLUE-GREEN ALGAE TASK FORCE

Governor DeSantis took a major step forward…

RED TIDE TASK FORCE

Under Governor Ron DeSantis’ leadership the Red Tide Task Force…

A subsequent “Timeline” section is similar in tone and focus.

October 25th, 2019

GOVERNOR DESANTIS BREAKS GROUND ON EMBANKMENTS AND CANALS TO COMPLETE THE C-43 RESERVOIR

 

October 23rd, 2019

GOVERNOR DESANTIS ANNOUNCES REMOVAL OF TAMIAMI TRAIL ROADBED

 

October 22nd, 2019

GOVERNOR DESANTIS AND FLORIDA CABINET TAKE ACTION TO EXPEDITE CONSTRUCTION OF EAA RESERVOIR PROJECT

 

C’mon, guys, this is heavy-handed even by Stalinist standards.

If this hagiography is the result of some underling’s over-enthusiastic effort to impress his boss, I would expect even DeSantis to be embarrassed. If it’s a result of just throwing old press releases onto the site, it displays laziness. If this is what DeSantis himself wanted, then he’s clumsily trying to build a cult of personality.

More seriously, what it does is call into question the factual information in the rest of the site. If the introductory articles seem overly propagandistic, a user might reasonably expect the same from the rest. It’s a big turn-off.

We then get to the important stuff: Water Quality Status

  1. Not yet ready for prime time

Water quality status reports are provided for three regions: The Caloosahatchee River, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River. A pop-up announcement tells you that it will be expanded statewide next year.

Click on one of the regions and you have the option of seeing a map with health and algae alerts or a water quality overview. Using an unusual two-step process (control + scroll), a user can zoom in and out of the map, which is useful and shows sampling points and results. Clicking on sampling locations brings up data about that particular location.

Because the website currently shows only the three regions, other than the Caloosahatchee River outlet, there is no data for other Southwest Florida beaches or anywhere else on the Gulf coast. As the pop-up states, data for the rest of the state will be coming in the future.

The website’s navigation is somewhat awkward, particularly the zooming in and out on the maps. Exploring the site is a clunky, step-by-step process that each user needs to conduct individually. Anyone accustomed to intuitive Apple-like navigation is going to be disappointed.

The site reports on the status and activities of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, the Red Tide Task Force and a variety of other Florida environmental projects and programs. They’re useful, although at least on my computer their maps were slow-loading.

One of the most important elements of the website is also one of its least prominent—what individuals can do to help reduce pollution and mitigate water quality problems. There are excellent tips but this function of the site is relatively buried and a user has to hunt for it. Rather than paeans to the governor, this might have been more useful to feature up front.

The bottom line

The website is useful and certainly is light years ahead of anything that previous governor Rick Scott ever did on environmental issues. It is definitely a step in the right direction and it will go some way toward enlightening Floridians about water issues and how they’re being tackled.

This could be a scientific, informative and authoritative site.

However, DeSantis and his people clearly decided to make it a propaganda vehicle. Instead of a dignified and discreet picture of DeSantis and his seal at the top, just to remind you that he’s there, they decided to hit the user over the head with a DeSantis sledgehammer.

The site in its current state is not really ready for prime time and it’s surprising that it was rolled out now. Much is lacking; as it notes, statewide data is unavailable and navigation needs to be improved. The site should be redesigned with the user in mind rather than the governor.

The great thing, though, about websites is that they’re flexible and can always be changed and upgraded.

So far DeSantis has shown a real commitment to environmental protection. We will see in the days ahead whether he has an equally real commitment to objective environmental reporting.

I’d suggest revisiting it in six months to see if there’s any improvement.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 David Silverberg

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Water, wetlands and oil: The Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor, enviro edition

05-10-19 Rooney Roundtable, facing the press 2 croppedRep. Francis Rooney faces the media on May 10 at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida days after his closed-door meeting on harmful algal blooms.                                   (Photo by the author)

524 days (1 year, 5 months and 9 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has faced constituents in an open, public town hall forum.

July 31, 2019 by David Silverberg

In Southwest Florida the three biggest environmental issues are water, wetlands and oil. Address those and you’re basically covering your environmental bases.

Certainly Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), whose district covers the coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island, was active on this front in the past three months as he aggressively positioned himself as a “green” Republican. He has managed to raise his lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters, the best political barometer of environmental sensitivity, from zero percent at the start of 2018 to 10 percent today.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has never made much of an effort on the environment even though his district covers much of the Everglades. He has an 11 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and as long as he keeps his Cuban-American constituency happy in Hialeah, which he does with regular fulminations against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, he doesn’t need to make the effort.

But the 19th Congressional District is extremely environmentally sensitive, as Rooney learned to his pain last year.

Water

Water quality is Rooney’s number one issue, according to his website. But while he campaigned on promoting pure water in his first race in 2016, he was caught completely flatfooted last year when both red tide bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae filled the canals of Cape Coral and the Caloosahatchee River.

For weeks over the summer, as the blooms gathered strength, nothing was heard from Rooney. It was a serious lapse that his Democratic opponent, David Holden, tried to exploit in the general election. (Full disclosure: this author helped.)

Rooney won his race in the 2018 midterm election, but he’d received a wake-up call. In 2019 he began working to make up this deficit.

On Jan. 10, he introduced the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414). This consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act (The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act), which provides the legal framework for disaster response. The bill would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. The bill was cosponsored by eight Republicans and six Democrats, some members signing on as late as June.

However, after being referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s emergency management subcommittee in February, the bill hasn’t made any further progress in the House.

Rooney had some success in 2018 bringing together federal officials to see local conditions and in May 2019 he tried again. This was to be a grand gathering of Southwest Florida officials like mayors and experts from relevant federal agencies to coordinate their responses to “harmful algal blooms,” as they are now known, or HABs. Rooney’s team over-hyped the gathering but then had to suddenly announce that it was closed to the press and public, causing outrage and charges that the meeting violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

According to Rooney, officials of one federal agency refused to attend the meeting if it was public and that agency was widely believed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was a measure of the Trump administration’s descent into secrecy that this once most public of agencies, whose very mission depends on its relationship with the press and public, has now drawn a curtain over its activities.

If it was, indeed, the CDC that insisted on secrecy, it was an instance of the administration screwing Rooney—and royally. To ensure the meeting proceeded with CDC participation, he bore the brunt of the criticism for closing the meeting, which he did not in fact have the authority to do and which, argued the lawyer for WINK-TV, violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

But adhering to the spirit and letter of the Florida Sunshine Law has become a lower and lower priority in the great state of Florida. Indeed, the meeting was blessed by the presence of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Rooney tried to make up for the public and media outrage with a subsequent meeting on May 10 that served as a public airing of grievances for conservation groups and environmental activists. They were able to vent and it brought him some favorable press but he was the only elected official present and the auditorium at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida was not exactly “the room where it happened,” as it’s put in the musical Hamilton. There were no elected executives or government experts present and no decisions were made. Still, Rooney had thrown a sop to the press and public.

But whatever good the meeting had done now faced a new threat—the possibility of another government shutdown because of conflict over reaching a budget agreement or raising the federal debt ceiling. In the January 2019 government shutdown essential government operations had been affected; in particular, national weather forecasting, so essential to Southwest Florida, was cut back.

This particularly affected the response to HABs; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a key player in monitoring their development. A NOAA expert was at the May 7 closed-door meeting and NOAA weather predictions are essential to warning of HABs or red tide so that local officials can prepare. If the government shuts down and NOAA stops working, Southwest Florida will, literally, be at the mercy of the tides.

Accordingly, on June 14 Rooney introduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act (HR 3297), which would exempt NOAA forecasting from any government shutdown. The bill has, as of July 9, nine cosponsors, six Democrats and three Republicans. Ironically, one of the first cosponsors was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.), a progressive member of the “The Squad” and the target of President Donald Trump’s twitter rage.

The legislation is even more ironic in that Rooney voted repeatedly against bills in January to end the government shutdown and then voted again against a two-year budget deal negotiated between President Trump and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), which will bring stability to the budget and debt ceiling processes. In effect, he was saying it was OK to shut down the government and keep it shut down, just not the agency essential to his district’s health and well-being that he cared about.

All that said, the bill was referred to the House Science, Space, and Technology; Natural Resources Committee’s water subcommittee, where it remains.

Wetlands

The Everglades are the wetlands that dominate Southwest Florida’s existence and restoring and preserving them is part of a half-century continuum of environmentalist activism. However, politically, the nuts and bolts of Everglades restoration come to a matter of dollars and cents—in particular federal versus state dollars and cents.

The US federal government is pledged to provide $200 million per year for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) whose centerpiece is the creation of reservoirs that will clean water from Lake Okeechobee before it’s allowed to flow out the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This is intended to equally match state funds for CERP.

Rooney has been an advocate for the Everglades since his 2016 run and has consistently pursued measures to complete or advance their restoration.

This year in his Fiscal Year 2020 budget, President Trump allocated only $63 million for CERP, setting off howls of protest among Florida lawmakers. Florida’s two senators, along with Rooney and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.), sent a letter to Trump protesting the underfunding. Diaz-Balart, notably, did not sign on although his district covers more of the Everglades than Rooney’s.

Trump agreed to come to Florida to see and be seen on the site and on April 29 he toured Lake Okeechobee and the Hoover Dike where he was met by DeSantis and virtually the whole Republican Florida delegation including Diaz-Balart and Rooney. The latter buttonholed him and—as Rooney would put it— “carpet-bombed” him about Lake O and CERP.  Trump subsequently reversed course and asked that the full $200 million be included in the budget request.

Rooney worked hard along with other Florida members to get the money approved by Congress and succeeded. It was included as part of a two-year compromise budget deal reached by Trump and Pelosi. Trump tweeted that it should be passed: “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!”

And then, when the budget deal was placed before the House of Representatives for approval, Rooney voted against it (!), denouncing it as irresponsible.

If ever there was a disconnect between the ideal and the practical, between the ideological and the pragmatic, between sight and blindness, between success and failure, this was it.

Fortunately, the House passed the budget deal. As this is written it is before the Senate and if passed there, it is expected—expected—to be signed by the President.

If it becomes law, that budget will include funding for Everglades restoration, which Rooney worked so hard to obtain and then voted against.

Oil

In a break with conservative anti-taxation orthodoxy, on January 24, Rooney signed on as a co-sponsor of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019, (HR 763), introduced by fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.). Of the original six co-sponsors, Rooney was the only Republican.

Today the bill has 58 co-sponsors—and Rooney remains the only Republican.

The original Deutch bill imposes a fee on the carbon content of fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel product that emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Francis Rooney Endorses Large Tax Increase,” raged the website of Americans for Tax Reform, a fiercely anti-tax group led by lobbyist Grover Norquist. “Rooney claims the bill is ‘revenue neutral’ but this is not a truthful assertion. The bill is a tax increase, a very large tax increase.” The group urged readers to call Rooney and push him to take his name off the bill.

Rooney didn’t and on July 25 he both doubled down on it—and tried to make his support more palatable to conservatives.

Rooney introduced the Stemming Warming and Augmenting Pay Act (SWAP Act) (HR 4058) and he signed on as the only other co-sponsor of HR 3966, sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3-Ill.), who also co-sponsored Rooney’s bill. Both bills would use taxes taken from fossil fuel polluters and use them to reduce Social Security taxes, increase payouts to Social Security beneficiaries and establish a trust fund that would help low-income people offset energy costs.

Rooney’s bill, however, has a big tradeoff: It would prohibit the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act for 12 years.

It’s a classic business approach to a problem, using money instead of regulation to get a desired result: if you pollute you pay—but you’re also unregulated. As its acronym implies, it’s a swap.

It joins another Rooney bill introduced on June 21, the Eliminating the RFS and Its Destructive Outcomes Act (HR 3427).

And what is RFS? RFS is the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It requires that transportation fuel sold in the United States have at least a component of renewable fuel. It was put in place in 2005 to reduce pollution and fight climate change.

Science versus Trumpism

The irony of Rooney’s situation is that he’s making more progress on environmental issues in a Democratic House than he did in the Republican-dominated 115th Congress.

This also applies to issues of oil exploration and exploitation. He teamed with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) to oppose oil drilling in Gulf coastal waters. This was a far cry from the previous Congress when his efforts to protect the shore were repeatedly blocked by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the House Majority Whip, who defended the oil and gas industry and its interests.

When Rooney introduced a bill to protect coral reefs from the harmful effects of chemicals in sunscreen (HR 1834), he was joined by three Democratic co-sponsors and only a single Republican.

His position on carbon taxation and his increasing number of breaks with the Trump line are getting him fire on the right and it is possible that he will face a primary challenge—for being a RINO (Republican in Name Only) of all things.

It’s now more difficult to simply label Rooney as a blindly loyal Trumpist as he was when he first took office. Then, he shared the stage and defended his master and railed against socialism, gun control and refused to admit the reality of climate change. He readily sought the media spotlight, held wildly contentious town hall meetings and called for a political purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation so that Trump could fill it with willing hacks and sycophants.

While Rooney’s positions on budgets, social issues, labor and immigration still mark him as a hard right-winger, it’s clear that he’s learning that if he’s going to be effective on the environment, Southwest Florida’s primary, existential issue, he has to both compromise and make common cause with the Democrats, liberals and even—gasp!—progressives he once disparaged so readily.

He also seems to have awakened to the contradictions and absurdities of Trumpism, as shown in his increasing number of votes in 2019 against the President’s line. This is a president who is indifferent toward environmental protection—when he isn’t actively hostile to it. If Southwest Florida is going to remain livable, this president has to be resisted.

Yesterday, July 30, Rooney was named a member of the House Science Committee. Science is supposed to be factual, objective and realistic. That’s tough to pursue with a president who is delusional and even deranged and who dismisses any fact he doesn’t like as “fake.”

When Congress reconvenes in September it will be interesting to see if Rooney can navigate between science and Trumpism and where his true commitment lies—and how that will play at election time.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus in August and September.

 

Closed Rooney Roundtable proceeds despite protests from public and press

439 days (1 year, 2 months, 15 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 7, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated with WGCU/Twitter reporting, May 8, 2019

Despite anguished protests from Floridians affected by impure or polluted water and outraged demands for public and press access, federal, state and local officials held a secret, closed meeting today at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute to discuss harmful algal blooms.

The roundtable was attended by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) as well as a variety of officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. State officials from a variety of agencies attended as well as officials at the county and municipal levels.

Although DeSantis and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) held a press conference after the very brief meeting, the public was kept at a sufficient distance from the lectern and speakers so that they couldn’t be heard. No transcript is expected.

A second, public, streamed event on the topic of harmful algal blooms is scheduled to be held Friday, which will be more of a public airing and include local activist organizations.  However, the press and public will likely never know what decisions were reached at the closed roundtable held today.

Some live clips from the meeting courtesy of WGCU via Twitter:

On the impropriety of closing the meeting: https://twitter.com/wgcu/status/1125802351992897537

On the threat to democracy from improper secrecy: https://twitter.com/wgcu/status/1126156718780637184

05-07-19 Panorama of FGCU-ETI, site of Rooney RoundtableA panoramic view of the site where the Rooney Roundtable was held. The orange cones mark the closest distance that the public was allowed to get to the building.    (All photos by the author.)
05-07-19 Protesters at Rooney roundtableA small but vigorous group of people tried to make their concerns about Southwest Florida water quality heard but were ignored by the officials at the Roundtable. A number were protesting the mining activities of the Mosaic Co., which they say is polluting waters in central Florida.
05-07-19 Protester with taped mouth at Rooney roundtableA protester demands clean water and the chance to speak to government officials and lawmakers.
05-07-19 Darlene Lucas and Jan Fennessy, protesters at Rooney RoundtableDarlene Lucas, a retired nurse, and Jan Fennessy drove to Fort Myers from Venice to try to learn about the health effects of algal blooms. Lucas said she had seen severe impacts from impure water in her practice.
05-07-19 Eric Larson, student at FGCU-ETIEric Larson, a student at the Emergent Technologies Institute. Larson had hoped to show Gov. DeSantis the facility and some of his work but wasn’t permitted in the building and was kept outside on the lawn with other members of the public.
05-07-19 DeSantis press conferenceThe closest the public was allowed to get to the outdoor press conference by DeSantis and Rooney.

The secrecy of the Rooney Roundtable was a violation of the spirit and intent of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which holds that decisions affecting the public should be made in public, WINK-TV lawyer Karen Kammer stated in a May 3 letter to Rooney.

Commentary

Rooney and DeSantis’ ability to exclude the press and public from a forum making decisions critical to Floridians’ health and wellbeing sets a dangerous precedent and is a blow to the rule of law in a state with one of the most comprehensive government transparency laws in the nation.

The secret decisions taken at this meeting will now likely trickle down to the county and municipal levels but in what forms and to what ends the press and public may never know.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg