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As federal protections for wetlands shrink, Miami restores reverence for water

By Kat Grimmett

Published: June 29, 2023

Read the original article in Prism.

A drive of just 24 minutes connects the high-rises of downtown Miami to the billowing blades of the Everglades. As the city rapidly expands, so do efforts to create a more symbiotic relationship with the River of Grass.

Grassroots conservation became ever more vital to the survival of these grasslands on May 25 when the Supreme Court ruled in Sackett v. EPA to remove protection for millions of acres of wetlands across the country.

“Wetlands function in the landscape like kidneys, so they remove pollution from water as they filter it out,” said Audrey Siu, the policy director at Miami Waterkeeper. “So when we take our wetlands away, when we take the kidneys out of the landscape, adjacent water bodies like lakes and Biscayne Bay are going to receive the impacts of that pollution.”

Some may know Miami Waterkeeper from their popular water quality tests monitoring dozens of beaches along the South Florida coastline. The nonprofit just received a $5 million dollar donation from the Knight Foundation.

Conservation efforts across the country were stunted by the decision in Sackett. But Florida, a state composed of wetlands, severed similar federal protections three years ago. 

In 2020, the Trump administration gave Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis approval to regulate permits for building on wetlands. Florida is only the third state to take over such operations from the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers, largely removing federal water rights.

The transition from federal to state regulation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which covers permits to “dredge and fill” waterways, removed Indigenous tribes’ right to consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act.

“From the perspective of an Indigenous person who is seeing the negative impacts of development and industry and agriculture, they may be happening hundreds of miles away, but the runoff ends up out here in the Everglades and Big Cypress,” said  Rev. Houston Cypress of the Miccosukee Tribe.

In 2020, the Army Corps received 1,126 permit applications. When the state took over regulation of Section 404 in 2021, applications spiked up to 3,556. Last year alone 1,596 permits were approved by the state. Among the approved projects were a 10,000-unit housing development and a limestone mine.

Lack of government protection is nothing new for Florida wetlands, deemed a “common enemy” in a 1959 law. What is emerging is a surge in creative, community-centered conservation work. One such effort takes the form of a board game. 

“Swamped in the Glades! is an educational board game where players become a drop of water traveling through the Everglades, experiencing everything that might happen to a drop of water along the way,” Rebecca Wood, the creator of Swamped in the Glades!, said.

Wood has worked in Miami as an environmental educator for more than a decade. The board game draws on her expertise along with that of other scientists and educators in the region.  

“I think grassroots conservation is essential in the face of weakened government protections,” Wood said. “Having input from the broader community is essential and can’t happen without building relationships between each other, each others’ interests, and the waters and plants and animals that surround us.” 

Artists in Residence in Everglades, or AIRIE, is a nonprofit with a mission to kindle a deeper relationship to the River of Grass by supporting artists who engage creatively and critically with the ecosystem. AIRIE has welcomed more than 200 artists since 2001.

Miami is the closest urban center to the National Everglades, the largest body of wetlands on the continent. But you don’t have to leave the Magic City to celebrate wetlands, thanks to a growing number of eco-activists permeating Miami’s lucrative art industry.

Love the Everglades Movement, a nonprofit co-founded by Rev. Cypress and Jean Sarmiento, is an engaging example of art activism in Miami.

“Art can document the condition of a place, art can tell stories, art can communicate information, art can produce knowledge of its own, art can create the opportunity to bring people together,” Cypress said. “I think we need to amplify those opportunities and widen the cracks in the system so that we can create more gardens of hope and gardens of reciprocity.”

Love the Everglades wields the visual arts to forge a cultural connection between Miamians and the Everglades. The nonprofit’s latest exhibit centers Indigenous knowledge and frames restoration as reconciliation.

Cypress cites Gean Moreno, curator of programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art, and Dale Andree, founder of National Water Dance, as examples of the strong ties between art and activism in Miami. 

“It’s not about teaching people what they don’t know, but opening the conversation from the perspective they’re coming from,” said Dale Andree. “It’s seeing what’s around us that matters to us. It’s nature, but it’s also man-made things. It’s the bodega down the street that may not be there if it’s flooding all the time.”

Earthjustice, a conservation organization, has been on high alert since Florida—the state with the fastest-growing population in the U.S.—was approved to preside over wetlands permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Miami Waterkeeper petitioned along with Earthjustice back in 2021 to reverse the decision. 

Transition of water rights from federal to state is darkly reminiscent of the 1850 Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act, which provided legality for the state to drain the Everglades—leading to the removal of Indigenous tribes and subsequent transfer of 20 million acres of wetlands from federal to state control. The state then transferred 17 million acres of those wetlands to private holders.

The Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act transformed the land so dramatically that a timeline of Florida history documented by the Everglades Office of Restoration begins with “Prior to 1850.”

“Protection and restoration of the Everglades has historically been complicated due to economic interests on state and county levels in continued development, tourism, and sugar production, and lessening federal protections can only make it harder,” said Wood.

A battle between development and restoration in Miami ensued in November 2022, when warehouse developers convinced county commissioners to push an urban boundary that formerly protected wetlands. The land overlaps a site undergoing major restoration led by the Army Corps and South Florida Water Management District. 

“When something has been paved over, it’s incredibly difficult to restore it,” said Cypress. “Folks are intelligent; they have technology available. There’s no need for sprawl. There’s no need for eating up undeveloped places.” 

The Florida State Legislature is currently reviewing a bill that would change the legal definition of “sprawl” to emit specificities such as “low density” and “automobile-dependent development.”

In an interview with WLRN, Eve Samples, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades, calls 2023 “the worst session we’ve seen in terms of bad development bills since 2011.”

Other environmentalist groups expressed concerns about HB 1197 and SB 1240, which collectively prevent local-government regulations on water quality, pollution control, and wetlands.

“Local politics matter. They matter very much,” Siu said. “We also understand that most people can’t make a county meeting at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, and that’s why Miami Waterkeeper makes it easy for the public to make their voice heard through our action alerts.” 

When the City of Miami Commission was set to review an ordinance to ban mangroves at city parks last year, Miami Waterkeeper and 13 advocacy partners successfully petitioned the mayor to veto the ordinance.

“I find that we all wear many hats, and the folks doing amazing things are people both in the street or are at the helm of some of the really well-funded institutions of the county,” said Cypress. “I see you walking with me on the street, and I can also build with you in the boardroom.” 

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