When Brice Claypoole heard that Manatee County leaders were proposing to slash measures long known to protect local water quality, he knew he had to do something about it.
The teenager spends his free time enjoying, photographing and writing about local nature on his blog. He also advocates for protecting it through a nonprofit group called Kids for Clean Water, which has the support of dozens of local children.
“Our parks and our waters are beautiful. But over the past few years, I’ve been watching them degrading,” Claypoole, 15, said. “There are places where I used to snorkel that now have mats of Lyngbya algae.”
“We started working on the issue of wetland protections because we love our waters here,” he said.
The Board of County Commissioners is pushing for a reduction of the required buffers between wetlands and development. The new rules would reduce the buffer requirement from 30-50 feet down to the state-required minimum of 15 feet with a 25-foot average.
Commissioners say they are in favor of less regulation and more property rights. But opponents argue that the freedom to build closer to the water could come at a great cost to the environment, property values and future quality of life in Manatee County.
Scientists oppose environmental cuts
Research supports that bigger is better when it comes to wetland buffers. The buffers provide an extra layer of protection against harmful pollutants, nutrients and sediment that can make it into area waterways and help minimize human impacts on wildlife.
Water quality issues can lead to decreased property values and costly remediation down the line, said Jim Bays, president of nonprofit Stewards of Our Urban Lakes, at a science panel on Tuesday.
“Based on the literature studies, people have noted that a buffer width anywhere from 30-50 feet or more is needed to achieve many of the functions that we’re desiring to see,” Bays said.
“To replace the functions that we’re removing through our development and our activities around wetlands, we are in fact probably looking to spend more in the future to help manage our water quality,” Bays said, citing a $31 million remediation project in Naples that required creating a new wetlands system from scratch.
Claypoole was in attendance.
He said he hopes that people will listen to the case science makes for maintaining bigger wetland buffers.
“If we continue making these kinds of shortsighted decisions, we’re not going to have anything left,” he said.
Kids rally to keep wetland protections
In an open letter to commissioners, Kids for Clean Water asked county leaders to reconsider.
“We are shocked and saddened that you are considering removing our already inadequate wetland protections,” reads the letter, which is signed by over 80 students aged 9-17.
“If our wetlands are destroyed, we stand to lose everything we love about our home forever. Decisions like this will define your legacy. Please, do not eliminate the county’s increased wetland buffer requirements.”
“I want clean water, clear beaches and bountiful wildlife in my future,” said Kaitlyn Cagno, 16. “Isn’t that what you want for your children too?”
A stop-motion video created by another student features a Lego character explaining the benefits of wetland buffers.
Commissioners are set to take a final vote on the issue Thursday. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.
Board members have recently argued that Manatee County is not keeping up with housing demand as they approve controversial developments.
Claypoole acknowledged that more housing is needed as Florida faces an affordable housing crisis.
“I’m not against growth at all,” Claypoole said. “But we need smart growth. Growth that’s going to produce a more vibrant community rather than less.”
If the measure passes this week, Claypoole says he’s not losing hope.
“It’s been amazing to see how our community has come together in complete support of our wetland protections as well as other environmental issues,” Claypoole said.
He encouraged local voters to “dig beneath the surface” before the next election.
“Make sure you’re taking note of what politicians are doing now, and whether they’ve protected our environment and our community,” Claypoole said.