To Preserve and Protect
The five greatest threats to Florida’s natural environment—and how to overcome them.
By Leslie Kemp Poole
Florida is a magical land of sunshine, pine forests, beaches and springs. It features stunning landscapes, such as the Everglades, and creatures, like the scrub jay, found nowhere else in the world. But these natural riches—essential to the character of the state and likely bigger draws than its numerous tourist attractions—are in imminent danger of being destroyed by a cascading barrage of threats, from climate change to unchecked growth. “Newark with palm trees” is how author Carl Hiaasen has described the development of South Florida. Must that be the fate of the entire state—a paved-over paradise?
With unprecedented growth that brings more than 1,000 new residents to the state every day, Florida is at a precipice. Only a rapidly closing window of time remains to protect valuable resources before the state sinks into an abyss of urban sprawl, inundated coasts and disappearing species. It’s easy to despair and turn away from even attempting to address such complex and overwhelming problems. And yet, solutions do exist, and with dedication and determination, we can still save the state that has been synonymous with paradise for so many for so long.
As David Gelles wrote this summer in The New York Times’ new climate-change newsletter, confronting intensifying environmental threats is daunting and requires “pants-on-fire urgency.” But it’s also, he says, “the opportunity of a lifetime,” as “after decades of inaction, a monumental effort is finally underway to confront climate change.” He cites rising sales of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and other technology that replaces fossil fuels and notes that government, industry and citizens are undertaking concerted efforts to protect the planet—and our future. Success in Florida will demand an extraordinary balancing act, weighing the needs of residents with those of animals, plants and ecosystems that have existed for thousands of years.
“Florida is getting a daily battering from natural forces and the effects of overdevelopment, so it has fewer opportunities to respond and restore,” says environmental attorney and historian Clay Henderson. But he agrees that although we are “growing at the fastest rate the state has ever seen, we still have a window of opportunity to protect the important natural resources.”
As a variety of threats, many entangled, affect the state today, five stand out as issues of primary concern.
The most critical issue facing Florida is climate change, which is affecting nearly every aspect of the state, from agriculture to flooding to human health. The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on technology and infrastructure in hopes of combatting rising sea waters, but technology may not be able to prevent some coastal cities and residences from becoming uninhabitable.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that sea levels are likely to rise one to four feet in the next century, impacting beaches, waterfront communities, roads and water systems as well as the lives of humans, animals and plants that rely upon them. Affected areas will include coastal wetlands and the Everglades, destroying rare ecosystems and removing critical habitat.
With rising temperatures come fiercer, wetter storms, as demonstrated in Hurricane Ian, which tore through Southwest Florida in 2022, destroying buildings and causing flooding on the coast as well as hundreds of miles inland. Insurance bills are soaring, along with energy costs.
Agriculture will be negatively impacted as warmer temperatures affect crop yields, planting and harvest periods, water supplies and farm animals. Farmworkers who harvest open-air crops will face greater health risks.
And we will all suffer with the heat. Florida—and the world—recorded some of the hottest days in human history this summer. The EPA estimates that by the end of the century, Floridians likely will have 45 to 90 days of temperatures above 95 degrees, compared with the current average of less than 15 days. Rising heat affects everyone, but susceptible populations, such as the elderly, children, and especially the poor, who can’t afford air conditioning or moving away from affected areas, bear the greatest burden.
With warmer temperatures also comes the rise of tropical diseases. For the first time in two decades, locally acquired malaria cases were detected in Florida this summer, and scientists warn that other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika could also spread around the state. Natural systems that have evolved over eons may not be able to adjust. This summer, ocean temperatures around the state climbed to staggering levels, with some in the high 90s.
The state’s coral reefs—major tourist attractions and home to some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet—are suffering, even dying in the superheated waters, and their demise will lead to the decline of other sea creatures and marine health. Wildfires may become more frequent. Economic impacts already are being felt: The United Nations reports that tidal flooding in Miami-Dade has been exacerbated by climate change, causing almost $500 million in lost property values from 2005-2016.
State and local officials have already started to address some of these problems. The Florida Legislature commissioned a risk-assessment report that focuses on water, sea-level rise and climate change, seeking answers and possible mitigation steps during the next 30 years. The state also has committed nearly $500 million to help communities adapt to climate change.
Cities in jeopardy from soaring temperatures and rising seas are implementing new programs. Officials in Orlando, Tampa, Miami and St. Petersburg are developing sustainability strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions that contribute to climate change, hoping to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050. While collective action is imperative to combat climate change, individual actions and decisions can also play a role.
What You Can Do
• Cut back on energy use in homes and use alternatives such as solar energy.
• Reduce automobile driving. Use mass transit, bikes or feet.
• Lobby state and local government to cut back carbon emissions and implement plans to cope with climate effects.
• Develop strategies to aid people affected most by the heat. For example, urge your community to create emergency shelters and provide water supplies.
Florida is blessed with an abundance of rivers, coastal waters that create a mild climate and underground water supplies known as aquifers. But the state’s beauty and ability to support residential populations hinge on the quantity and quality of its water. And trouble is brewing.
From saltwater intrusion into wells to algae blooms along the coast to aging septic tanks leaking into rivers and springs, Florida’s waters are imperiled. Warning signs are everywhere: once-clear springs turning murky with reduced flow and high nutrient levels; manatees starving to death after pollution killed seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon; and the state ranking first in the nation in the number of polluted lakes.
At the root are a booming, thirsty population and a desire for green lawns that require sprinkling along with fertilizers and chemicals that drain off in storms, contaminating coastal and underground waters.
Just how much water remains in aquifers is a great unknown since no entity has a firm handle on how much water they hold and whether they are being adequately replenished. Ironically, the city of Zephyrhills, the namesake of a massive bottled-water brand, has imposed a one-year moratorium on new housing development because of uncertainty about future water availability.
Solutions may come from many fronts, including strict water conservation programs like those utilized by Western states. Some communities now use treated wastewater for irrigation. Desalination of seawater into drinking water, once the provenance of desert nations, is now providing 25 million gallons of clean water per day in the Tampa area. To protect water for both people and natural systems, a citizen’s initiative has proposed Florida’s Right to Clean Water, an amendment to the state constitution. Supporters are gathering signatures to put it on the November 2024 ballot. If passed, the amendment may force state agencies to stop pollution and repair damaged waterways or face lawsuits.
“I think this amendment is our very last chance to save Florida waters,” said Jim Durocher, a campaign leader. “We’ve seen such deterioration though these decades, and this is our last chance to get it right.”
What You Can Do
• Cut back on water use inside homes. Irrigate at night to reduce evaporation.
• Replace chemical- and water-dependent lawns with native, drought-tolerant plants.
• Urge state and local governments to implement water conservation measures and help homeowners replace leaking septic tanks.
• Properly dispose of drugs and chemicals so they don’t contaminate water supplies.
With increased pressure from a population that has jumped to more than 22 million people, the state must meet the challenge of balancing the needs of humans and natural systems.
Since becoming a state in 1845, Florida has lost nearly half its wetlands, essential habitats for natural species. Most longleaf pine forests disappeared into sawmills. Sandy scrublands became orange groves, then subdivisions. Shoreline mangroves that support estuaries and act as marine nurseries were removed for waterfront views. Underground aquifers were tapped for drinking water and irrigation. An estimated 100,000 acres of land is bulldozed every year.
As a result, parts of the state have become urban nightmares with clogged roads, overcrowded schools and deteriorating infrastructure, resembling the Northern cities that newcomers are fleeing for the promise of Eden in Florida. One report estimates that if we continue at the current rate, by 2070 more than one-third of the state will be developed, with demand doubling for water.
To control Florida’s urban sprawl, in 1985 the legislature adopted a massive Growth Management Act, which won national acclaim for its visionary approach, requiring local governments to create and follow plans for land use and capital improvements, with state supervision to ensure compliance. But in recent years, the state department that provided oversight has been eliminated, as have requirements that new infrastructure be provided for growth. At the same time, the ability of citizens to challenge new development has been hampered while the state population has continued to swell.
On a positive note, the state has reenergized its land preservation purchases and there is a strong movement to purchase easements on land to prevent future development. An estimated 32 percent of the state has been protected from development—an amazing accomplishment—but many environmental leaders believe that number must reach 40 percent to adequately safeguard resources and biodiversity.
Protecting millions of acres of natural and agricultural lands, along with inducing officials to support more compact development and urban infill, could be the path to finding the right balance.
“Unfortunately, there remains a belief that managing growth somehow inhibits economic growth and jobs,” says Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a growth-management advocacy group. “It does the opposite. Protecting our environments and quality of life puts us on a path to not only a more sustainable but a more prosperous future.”
What You Can Do
• Support stricter rules to guide development away from open lands and risk-prone coastal areas into existing urban spaces.
• Support mass-transit options that enhance urban lifestyles.
• Encourage protection of biodiverse lands; some communities have voted to tax themselves to buy and preserve important ecosystems.
ENDANGERED AND INVASIVE SPECIES
Florida’s unique geography, with the temperate climate abutting the subtropical along with varied landscapes of coasts, wetlands and uplands, makes it a treasure trove of a rich variety of plant and animal species. Many are found nowhere else in the world. It also means we have much to lose. Climate change, overdevelopment, pollution and invasive species are pushing many Florida plants and animals to the brink of extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 135 Florida species as endangered or threatened; hundreds more, particularly plants, have been designated by the state as needing protection.
Some face specific threats, such as sea turtles that need nesting beaches and manatees that require watery winter refuges, productive seagrass beds and protection from the speeding boats that killed 76 of their number last year. Others face critical issues such as overcollection, lack of genetic diversity, and habitat loss and degradation.
Many places are overwhelmed by nonnative plants and animals that have upset the ecological balance, costing an estimated $30 million annually to combat. The list is long: Australian pines and Brazilian pepper and eucalyptus trees push out native plants. Iguanas inhabit South Florida neighborhoods and are moving north, and poisonous lionfish roam the reefs, crowding out native fish. The most notorious invader is the Burmese python, which in the last 50 years has eradicated an astonishing 90 percent of mammals in the Everglades, from deer and raccoons to bobcats—prey that the endangered Florida panther seeks.
The panther is the ultimate example of the woes of the state’s species. Once ranging across the southeastern United States, the cats were wiped out by ranchers and hunters until in the 1970s only about two dozen remained in the Everglades. Today an estimated 200 panthers face an uncertain future. The No. 1 cause of panther deaths: being hit by a car, a fate that befell 13 of the cats in 2022.
While transportation officials retrofit some highways with underpasses for panthers to travel safely below streets, the animals face an even greater problem: habitat fragmentation that limits them to small ranges and prevents them from expanding their populations.
As the poster child of Florida’s troubled species, the panther helped inspire a great success among Florida’s current environmental woes: the Florida Wildlife Corridor project, which seeks to link large masses of habitats and preserved lands and parks to enable the statewide movement of species such as the panther and the Florida black bear.
Since the state legislature created the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act in 2021, the law has protected 119,939 acres to link these lands. It is a model of innovative thinking and funding, combining environmental, agricultural and political interests to create a solution for many species that need safe space to roam, breed and feed. And it will benefit humans as well.
What You Can Do
• Do not dispose of unwanted pets in wild areas where they may reproduce (as did the Burmese python); demand stricter regulation of the pet trade.
• Support retrofitting busy roads to create animal underpasses.
• Rid your yard of invasive plant species whose seeds may be spread by birds and wind. Plant native species that support Florida wildlife.
• Do not feed feral cats and keep pet cats indoors. Annually, cats kill millions of native birds and small mammals.
No other landscape in Florida has been as hated and loved as the Everglades. Once the target of massive drainage projects, the “river of grass,” which flows southward from Orlando, is now valued for its biological diversity and impact on recharging water supplies. Visitors from around the globe head to the tip of Florida to visit the Everglades National Park, a World Heritage Site.
But the Glades are in trouble.
Those drainage projects accomplished their goals of ridding the ecosystem of water but had unintended consequences—fires, saltwater intrusion, pollution, decreased water flow, habitat degradation and algae blooms, to name a few. In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the world’s largest wetland restoration program, was adopted to counteract those problems at a cost now estimated at more than $20 billion, financed by federal and state dollars.
Experts in ecology, engineering, hydrology and related sciences have their work cut out for them in trying to figure out how to improve a system now at odds with agriculture and booming development from population growth.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of drained lands now support sugarcane farms that rely on chemicals for their crops. Lake Okeechobee has become a massive water retention system for these farms, and when heavy rains raise lake levels and threaten to overflow dams, water is released into coastal waterways and causes massive algae blooms as far away as Southwest Florida. In early June, those blooms covered more than 400 square miles of Lake Okeechobee.
Managers are looking at new methods for controlling the water flows, including a new reservoir south of the lake, expected to be completed by 2030 at a cost of $3.9 billion. In the meantime, local communities are protesting that their residents’ health is adversely affected by the burning of sugarcane fields, which releases toxins into the atmosphere.
The Everglades’ ecosystems also are affected by invasive species and by climate change, which is expected to raise coastal seawater levels and bring salty water into freshwater habitats. At the same time, wetter hurricanes and storms may destroy ecological systems in the Everglades, which environmental experts warn may have lost much of their ability to recover.
A report last year urged leaders of the restoration plan to reconfigure scenarios about future precipitation and temperatures in determining initiatives, adding that the project is now at a pivot point for its potential success—and that its success will be watched around the globe.
As Everglades activist Joe Podgor wrote, “The Everglades is a test. Pass it and we may get to keep the planet.”
What You Can Do
• Contact federal and state representatives to support Everglades restoration and funding.
• Demand better quality and quantity of water that enters the system.
• Support Everglades advocacy groups.
It is imperative to remember that we are in this together. It will take state and local efforts, as well as actions by individuals, to address the problems facing Florida’s natural environment in coming years.
Many possible solutions could have a dramatic impact.
Setting aside more natural lands for wildlife and water recharge could preserve features that make Florida unique and keep the state livable for all. Directing growth away from risk-prone areas also will be crucial. And public support for preservation and conservation is increasing.
“While Florida has experienced record growth, it’s also receiving record funding for conservation,” says Traci Deen, CEO of Conservation Florida. “Florida will face continued environmental challenges as we grow and as our climate changes. There is no singular silver bullet, but in any planning where land and water health and sustainability are concerned, land conservation must be prioritized. With historic funding for land protection in Florida comes historic opportunity, and for me, incredible hope for our future.”
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Leslie Kemp Poole is associate professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. A fourth-generation Floridian, Poole focuses her research on how grassroots activists, particularly women, have fought to save the state’s natural beauty and resources. Her latest book, Tracing Florida Journeys: Explorers, Travelers, and Landscapes Then and Now will be co-published by University Press of Florida and Florida.
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