Corps of Engineers chief speaks in Tampa

08/09/07 Seán Kinane
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David Hobbie, chief of the Regulatory Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, is traveling the state for a series of four “Meet the Chief” forums.

Today several dozen environmental consultants, developers and environmentalists attended a forum at Tampa’s Crowne Plaza hotel to ask questions of Hobbie and learn about changes in national permitting procedures.

The Army Corps’ Regulatory Division is responsible for issuing permits for developments that impact navigable waters or wetlands under the authority of either the Rivers and Harbor Act or the Clean Water Act.

Several developers and environmental consultants asked about ways to streamline the process of issuing permits. Hobbie said that his division has the highest volume of permits in the Corps but does not have a proportionally sized budget or staff. He said he is meeting with the public to take suggestions on how his office could serve the public better.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about our program; what we do, what we don’t do. What our responsibilities and authorities are and are not. And communication is the key. And I believe that getting out and talking with members of the public throughout the state and help better educate them about our program, what our responsibilities are. And if they better understand it, they can better help us do our jobs.

"And as public servants, we owe them; we have responsibility to make sure they do understand our program. And through education and through understanding comes acceptance and assistance.”

The St. Petersburg Times has reported “that from 1999 to 2003, the Corps approved 12,000 permits for destroying wetlands and denied just one.”

Despite a federal policy of no net loss of wetlands, Florida has “lost about 84,000 acres of wetlands to development between 1990 and 2003,” according to the Times.

WMNF asked Hobbie to explain the perception that the Corps issues too few denials of wetlands destruction.

“Yes, on a national average, say Jacksonville district, if we issue 10,000 permits a year, we may only deny five or six. What people don’t see though is that permits go out the door much different than they come in.

"A large part of our job is to really push the avoidance and mitigation. For example, out of this 10,000 permits, say that when they initially came in the door, they had proposed a 100,000 acres of impact. But at the end of the year, there was only 10,000 acres of impact. That means we reduced the overall impact by 90,000 acres.

"So although we say ‘no’ a lot through the process, the final answer may not be ‘no’ but they may not have gotten everything they were wanting in the beginning,” Hobbie said.

When wetlands are destroyed, a developer must create new wetlands; a process called mitigation. Hobbie said that sometimes the number of acres that are created through mitigation are less than the number of acres of natural wetlands destroyed.

“We do a functional assessment. So we come up with a scientific determination of what the functions and values of the wetland being impacted are. And when we look at mitigation what we try to do is make sure we compensate for the functions and values lost. So what we’re trying to get at is, sometimes, say, 2 acres of a wetland may be impacted, it may only take an acre of a high-quality wetland to mitigate that 2 acres of low-quality wetland impacted to make up for that.”

Joe Murphy is the Florida Program Coordinator with the Gulf Restoration Network. He said that mitigation is costlier than leaving natural wetlands intact and disagrees with the idea that mitigation produces wetlands that are superior to natural wetlands.

“Floridians have had the myth of mitigation kind of thrust upon them by the development community. Natural systems, functioning natural systems; the wetlands we see, our rivers, our coastal estuaries, that’s what we need to be protecting. Humanity, people, science, we can’t duplicate those things.

"We can come up with something that may work for certain aspects of what they do, but keeping the environment and keeping wetlands protected and safe as they are is the single best thing we can do for our water supply, for our wildlife and for our future.”

Becky Ayech is with the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida. She said there are three ways the corps can deal with applications from developers requesting a permit to destroy wetlands: minimization, avoidance, and mitigation.

“When someone comes in to get a permit, the first thing they look at, let’s say they want to impact 100 acres, the Corps would say, ‘Well, let’s minimize that. Maybe you can get the project so that you only impact 50 acres.’

"Avoidance, of course, which is our favorite, is that someone would come in with 100 acres and the Corps says, ‘I’m sorry, you need to avoid that hundred acres.’

Then the third one is mitigation, where they look at the value and function of the wetlands and they say, ‘well, you know, this wetlands doesn’t have a very good value and function. We’re going to go ahead and let you - in my words - trash it and we’ll let you make up for that somewhere else.’”

Ayech agrees with Murphy that mitigation is much worse than just preserving natural wetlands.

“We’re always hoping that the Corps will look at no impacts first. And feel that that, from an ecological standpoint, particularly with the pressures that are going on now with development of all types in Florida, that that’s what we have to do. Because if you mitigate it offsite, then when that land becomes valuable, then what are you going to do? Are you then going to mitigate it again? And then mitigate it again? And so finally you have all these areas where there used to be wetlands and now there’s not and we have another Lake Okeechobee, as an example for the ultimate horror story.”

Murphy said the Cypress Creek watershed in the northern Tampa Bay region is an example of where the Corps is unwisely permitting the destruction of critical wetlands.

“I think that we need to be asking the Army Corps of Engineers a lot of tough questions. Here’s a federal agency that’s charged with protecting a public resource. I think Cypress Creek Town Center is a great example of where that didn’t happen.

"The folks from the Corps here today talked about how they really want to protect the best wetlands. Well you had 56 acres of prime, productive wetlands that feed the Hillsborough River, that supply drinking water for the city of Tampa, and now they’re going to be underneath a parking lot and a mall because the Corps decided that that was OK.

"The Corps’ mission is to enforce the Clean Water Act. The Corps’ mission is to make sure that if a project is not wetland-dependent, if it could be built any other way in any other place, that’s what’s supposed to happen.”

WMNF asked Murphy why the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners is discussing the elimination of the Environmental Protection Commission’s Wetlands Division.

“I think it’s very, very clear that this is not about the budget of Hillsborough County. Any attempt to get rid of the EPC’s Wetlands Division is about making it easier for developers to develop wetlands. If you looked at it from a budgetary perspective, it’s a very small part of the county’s budget. And what is saved every year by the general taxpayer by not having to deal with storm water problems, with not having flooding issues, with having places to recreate and enjoy, with having clean water.

"The value we get out of wetlands is 10 times worth whatever the county spends every year to protect them. This is a program that’s under the gun because the development community in Hillsborough County doesn’t like to play by the rules and doesn’t want to have to hear the word ‘no.’”

To learn more:

Army Corps of Engineers Regulatory Division, Jacksonville District

Gulf Restoration Network

Cypress Creek Watershed

Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County

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