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FDEP invites public input on new water quality credit program

A tiny mangrove plant is visible next to the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.
Molly Duerig
A tiny mangrove plant sprouts up next to Brevard County's Indian River Lagoon in November 2023. The IRL received an overall health score of 'F' last year from the Marine Resources Council.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is inviting the public to a rulemaking workshop Thursday to share feedback on a proposed water quality credit trading program.

The program would allow government entities to buy “enhancement credits” to compensate for negative impacts to water quality from development projects. An “enhancement credit” represents a quantity of pollutant removed as a standard unit of measurement, per Florida Statute.

Florida’s existing mitigation banking program relies on similar credits intended to offset negative wetland impacts from development. But Gabrielle Milch of St. Johns Riverkeeper has concerns about both programs, saying they're designed to prioritize speedy development approvals when environmental health should come first and foremost.

“It's easier to keep pollution out of the water than it is to take it out of the water,” Milch said, also adding “it's a lot cheaper.”

Milch previously worked for the St. Johns River Water Management District, where she says her role included helping oversee and enforce development permitting regulations.

Back then, in the 1980s, Milch says development permitting in Florida wasn’t perfect. But she thinks it’s worse today: “more generalized and more streamlined,” allowing for rapid, potentially unvetted development.”

“Let's not take our old problems with us. Let's learn from the past, and be more reflective.”
Gabrielle Milch, St. Johns Riverkeeper

FDEP’s move to establish the new program follows state lawmakers’ unanimous approval of HB 965 in 2022, authorizing the creation of water quality enhancement areas (WQEAs), for which credits may be used to compensate for a lack of water quality treatment available onsite.

Florida’s Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method (UMAM) provides “a standardized procedure” to assess an area’s ecological functions, as well as how much those functions might suffer from proposed development impacts. But in reality, Milch says UMAM is not so objective.

“These mitigation credits are subjective, in that the process was put in place so that the development community could have a predictable, reliable, quick way to say … ‘We have money in the bank, we need to get going, and your evaluation of this area has taken too long,” Milch said.

“I think that the mitigation credits for water quality could go down that road, and that is not a good road to go down,” Milch said. “Let's not take our old problems with us. Let's learn from the past, and be more reflective.”

FDEP’s rulemaking workshop is scheduled for 1 p.m. this Thursday in Tallahassee and will also be livestreamed, per FDEP.

Molly is an award-winning reporter with a background in video production and investigative journalism, focused on covering environmental issues for Central Florida Public Media.
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