Seagrass mitigation bill appears to be losing momentum as environmental groups continue fight

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

A seagrass mitigation bill is reportedly floundering in Tallahassee as support for what's called the Water Mitigation Bill appears to be waning. 

Jane West, with 1,000 Friends of Florida, said Stuart Republican Rep. Toby Overdorf is scrambling to gather support for the bill but finding very little. 

"In its current form we’ve been hearing that it’s not moving," West said. "Overdorf is increasingly coming up against the ladder in the power structure in Tallahassee."

An environmental consultant, Overdorf said in a recent opinion piece that the process of planting in one area to offset losses in another is a proven science. 

"In accordance with state law, mitigation banks provide regionally significant restoration of resources that are proven through independent monitoring and backed by perpetual financial requirements," Overdorf wrote in a recent Florida Today opinion piece.

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Miami Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill (SB198), while Rep. Tyler Sirois is working with Overdorf on the House side (HB349). None were available for comment as of publication time. 

If approved, the bill, like many others in recent years, would also limit a local community's ability to enact more stringent requirements or regulations. 

"A local government may not impose a more stringent regulation, permitting requirement, registration requirement, or other regulation covered by such general permit," the Senate version of the bill reads. 

Volunteers Patricia Romaine, Carol Murphy and Solemi Hernandez team up during a seagrass planting event along the Caloosahatchee River on June 18, 2018. Ryan Brushwood, a field biologist for Sea and Shoreline, was supervising the work. A bill to allow for seagrass mitigation is reportedly losing momentum in Tallahassee.

A seagrass mitigation program would work similarly to an existing wetland mitigation process, which involves destroying wetlands in one area and restoring them in another.

A mitigation bank, typically operated by a for-profit company, restores wetlands and sells credits to developers who impact wetlands.  

Critics say wetland mitigation doesn't work because Southwest Florida has lost tens of thousands of acres of wetlands in the past few decades. The motto for wetland protections in the country has long been "no net loss." 

But there has been a net loss in wetlands here, and critics of the Water Mitigation Bill say it would have a similar impact. 

"This is not a measure to try to restore dying seagrass beds," West said. "The only way we’re going to be able to do that is through water quality. This is a free-for-all giveaway for existing seagrass beds."

Several environmental groups and university scientists have tried planting and growing seagrass beds, but very little success has been realized. 

It's practically impossible to grow seagrass in waterways like the Caloosahatchee River. Although the river was once home to vast patches of grasses, most of that habitat has been lost in the past 20 years due to poor water quality, critics say.  

"The bottom line is that mitigation just doesn’t work very well," said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. "It has a high rate of failure, and I think a large reason is the seagrass has to compete with microalgae. And when the pollution source is nutrients, that creates an imbalance, and often the microalgae outcompetes the seagrass." 

A similar bill was proposed in 2008, but then Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the legislation. 

"In his veto Crist expressed constitutional concerns over the conveyance of a perpetual interest in sovereign submerged lands to a private entity that could include the right to exclude the public," reads a December 2021 University of Florida paper. 

The UF paper says the Senate version differs because it allows for the mitigation of natural resources, which could include oysters, coral or other indicator species. 

The Tampa Bay area has been able to regrow seagrass in the past 20 years or so. But success there came from cleaning the water, which than allowed the seagrasses to reestablish in historic area. 

Overdorf said the seagrass mitigation bill will not solve water quality problems. 

"Will this proposed legislation save the entirety of benthic ecology within Florida," Overdorf said rhetorically in his opinion piece. (Benthic refers to life and sediment at the bottom of a water body.) 

"Will this bill be able to magically restore seagrass lost in Tampa Bay or the Indian River Lagoon? The answer is a resounding 'no.' In order to do that, we must attack detrimental water quality conditions." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.