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Wetlands: Losing More at What Cost?


BRADENTON -- You don't have to be an environmentalist, a water works superintendent, or a marine biologist to be concerned about our water, where it comes from and how we can keep a fresh supply. One thing we all have in common is that we all need clean water to maintain a robust and healthy life. It's said, the wars of the future will be fought over water, not oil. Which stands to reason, because we can't live without it. Water is life, that's why if it's found on mars or the moon, that would substantiate the possibility for those environments to sustain life. We might need experts to help us protect it, but we don't need them to tell us of its significance. Mankind does not exist without a viable water supply -- period.

Florida is already struggling with its water's condition, availability and the manner in which it is protected. In addition to sustaining life on a basic level, water has become the throttle to development, industry and commerce. It is the center to our recreation and agriculture, so it should be of no surprise the attention the Manatee  County Board of Commissioners are getting, concerning the wetland decisions being placed before them. The planning department recommended land development code changes introducing a new wetland protection policy has fallen before a barrage of criticism. 

The controversy surrounding the issue is an ongoing struggle to preserve our most vital resource. It's about what many have thought is an inadequate wetland protection program, being replaced by an even more vulnerable strategy leaving the county's remaining wetlands in danger. Representatives from many concerned groups spoke on August 16, at the BOCC meeting when these revisions were presented to the public. Speakers from ManaSota88, the League of Women Voters and Sierra Club, were some of the groups that objected to the code revisions. The complaints are mounting about the cost, the science, the dwindling account of wetland left, and the way in which wetlands are graded. But a common thread that runs through all the discontent is that it puts a price on something that is priceless, and opens the door to bargain our remaining wetlands away.

Under the new revisions, there are four categories of wetlands and only the most valuable (category lV) would require a public hearing to approve any impact to it.. The other three categories can be mitigated through the recommended revisions that are designed to approve wetland impacts not prevent them. The sliding scale of 115 to 200% added to the mitigation cost, that's designed to


compensate for any loss, when filing for wetland impact approval, does little to avert the destruction of them. Approval for wetland destruction only requires the applicant to demonstrate it a caveat to profit. 

The process becomes a preempted variance. The decision then rests with whether the bank will forgo investment for the impact ignoring a wetland might yield. There is no cost to the developer, the revisions just increase the appetite for more profit. The required trade-off for a replacement wetland is cheap, it being nonfunctional, and can double as the project's buffer. The language in the "approval of wetland impact" section of the revisions, is so vague that it is open to conflicting interpretations.

Glenn Compton, Chairman of ManaSota88 says "the changes will encourage the developers to design wetlands around projects instead of projects around wetlands." There are many who believe man cannot construct a wetland, that they have to be cultivated over a great deal of time in a natural setting. Man has proven the ability to destroy wetlands and known to dress them up to appear functional, but the chronic declining water level of the aquifer suggests that the patchwork methods adopted aren't working. And that could be due largely to another theme critics share; the unacceptable exemption phosphate mining is getting from having to apply the code to their operations. More wetland has been destroyed from that practice then from any other. Mining companies claim they can "reconstruct wetlands," but records show the numbers are minuscule and there is no evidence of their ability to function as well as a natural wetland. 

At the August 16, BOCC meeting, County Commissioner Joe McClash suggested to Joel Christian, from Manatee Natural Resource Department, that "phosphate mining should be held to the codes," then assistant County Attorney William Clague came forward and said "We need to treat phosphate separately." Clague says "separately" because he claims phosphate companies participate in alternative deals like land swaps and that they reconstruct wetlands, unlike developers. What might be helpful is for him to present adequate evidence of just where and how well these reconstructions function. To date, the only evidence of mining's reconstruction of wetland are statements made by the phosphate companies and their associates.  

Most of those opposing the new changes feel that if Manatee County wishes to change their methodology, to how they grade and manage their wetlands, they need to perform a wetland survey, including the adequate data and analysis designed to provide for their protection. The BOCC could host a workshop and invite at least two wetland experts who specialize in preservation. All studies must come from a baseline approach in order to be creditable. Like County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said, "We have to get it right." That might be an honorable slogan to hang over the chamber doors. 


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