TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Nearly a third of Florida — millions of acres — is designated as wetlands, and the recent Supreme Court decision over the type of land could have a major impact in the state, potentially inviting more construction and development. The ruling weakened environmental protections on wetlands by changing what land is and is not protected by the Environmental Protection Agency and the decades-old Clean Water Act.
“This is what drives people to Florida,” said Rocky Milburn, gesturing out to Lake Conservation Park, where he spoke with 8 On Your Side. “This beautiful, beautiful place. But it’s going to disappear.”
Unless wetlands are connected to a larger body of water, they are under less protection, which has environmentalists, like Rocky Milburn of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, frustrated.
“That’s our drinking water, from these wetlands,” Milburn said. “They hold the water and they filter down to the limestone through the aquifer. It’s very, very important.”
The Sierra Club said more than half the country’s wetlands will be affected, including many in Florida.
“How many people a day are moving to Florida?” Milburn questioned. “How many houses are they building? Just drive anywhere — North County, South County, Lakeland — and there’s wetlands all around us.”
But the commercial construction industry says the ruling just clarifies the law — it doesn’t weaken protections.
“It’s not like we’ve taken away water protections,” said Brian Turmail. “We’ve just said, ‘This type of water gets federal protection, this type of water gets state and local protection.'”
Turmail is the spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association for the construction industry, which has members in the Tampa Bay Area and Florida. He said vital infrastructure wasn’t being built because of confusion with the law.
“Our biggest challenge is contractors had no idea when they were supposed to get a clean water permit,” Turmail said. “And regulators had no idea when you needed a clean water permit.”
Turmail said the scope of the Clean Water Act has constantly changed under different administrations, going from broader to narrower year after year. He said if people don’t like the various protections, they should go to the lawmakers instead.
“Our guys just want to know if the project’s going to get built,” Turmail said. “Or if the project’s not going to pass muster.”
The Sierra Club said local groups and the national organization are going to fight the ruling, but added that the outlook is not good for that battle. While the Associated General Contractors are pleased with the ruling, they are waiting to see what the Biden administration does next.