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Florida’s environment is a focus of first day of 2022 Legislature

SOUTH FLORIDA – Many pressing issues will be on the minds of Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee today as they begin the legislative session for 2022 -- some of the most disturbing are environmental problems left over from 2021.

More than 1,000 manatees starved to death in the Indian River Lagoon over the course of last year, odd not only due to the number of dead sea cows but also because the lagoon is a 150-mile-long grouping of three smaller lagoons along the mid-Florida Atlantic Ocean coast considered one of the most biodiverse spots in the Northern Hemisphere.

Red tide came and went, and came and went, from Sarasota to Collier counties in a never-ending cycle of beaches fouled with dead fish and the air filled with the acrid odor of a neurotoxin that affects people, too. On top of the Caloosahatchee River nasty blue-green algae formed a slime after too much fertilizer-rich water was released too quickly into the waterway .

1000 Friends of Florida is a Tallahassee-based environmental group working toward sustainable growth, preserving environmental and agricultural lands, economic, and quality of life issues.

“The danger signs are all too clear, from devastating red tide and blue-green algae blooms to record deaths of Florida’s iconic manatees to chronically congested roads,” the group wrote in an open letter to legislators before the session began Tuesday. “If more deliberate steps aren’t taken to plan properly for Florida’s future, taxpayers will pay more to restore tainted waterways and more for diminished public services. Our state’s environment and quality of life, the foundation of a healthy economy, will crumble.”

The 160 members of the 2022 Florida Legislature have some divisive issues to deal with during the next two months: reproductive rights, growth and development as more than 1,000 people move into Florida every day, changes to the ways students are tested,and Covid-19 and pandemic-related issues such as mask wearing and vaccinations.

Gov. Ron DeSantis began the lawmakers’ 60-day session by giving his State of the State speech, which focused on his re-election-year pledge to give $1,000 bonuses for newer teachers and first responders, a new statewide office to investigate voter fraud, and prohibiting critical race theory from being taught in public school as well as ensuring undocumented immigrants do not receive any state benefits.

Technically, all the lawmakers have to do during the two-month session is pass the nearly $100 billion budget proposed by DeSantis. But that is where bills and budget proposals come into the mix as the lawmakers, lobbyists and business and citizen groups work to redirect some of those billions into other directions.

DeSantis’ focus on environmental spending in 2022 is of particular note this year. Florida is ecologically and environmentally troubled at the same time. Much of the roughly $960 million in the governor’s budget is earmarked for water quality improvements, the Everglades restoration, dead fish and decaying foliage after blue-green algae blooms or red tides, or to work to eradicate invasive species like Burmese pythons or kudzu

A half-billion dollars more is for spending on “resiliency,” a word used by the governor and others who challenge whether climate change and global warming are happening, yet at the same time want to pay to prepare coastal communities for impending sea level rise such as rebuilding beaches with more sand, installing better flood control measures, and repairing and protecting coral reefs.

Florida is the only state in the lower 48 to have extensive nearshore shallow coral reefs. They extend more than 300 miles from the St. Lucie Inlet on Florida’s East Coast to the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico.

Issues involving climate change are also among the most important mentioned on Sierra Club Florida Chapter’s website Tuesday.

“Floridians’ risk from stronger storms and sea-level rise caused by climate change is a function of both past and future emissions. Florida must reduce its use of fossil fuels now by transitioning to 100% renewable energy statewide before 2050,”the environmental group wrote. “Left in their natural state, our lands keep an immense amount of climate pollution out of the atmosphere and provide economic and quality of life benefits. We need to keep our remaining undeveloped lands intact by preserving open spaces and wetlands, enhancing regional wildlife corridors, and avoiding fragmentation of habitat. “

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, accelerating change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.