Just three days after the start of the session, the House approved a massive plan to rewrite state water policy, setting the stage for weeks of negotiations with the Senate. As Jim Ash reports, the legislation emphasizes the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and natural springs.
Sponsor Matt Caldwell, a Republican from Lehigh Acres and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, called the legislation historic.
“We are taking an important step in preserving the health of the Northern Everglades for our future generations. I hope everyone will join me in voting yes today.”
There weren’t enough Democrats in the House to stop, or even stagnate the bill. Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach complains it moved so quickly, it was only heard in a single committee.
“The fact that there’s questions, the fact that there’s some doubts, I think probably is result of not having a bill that’s been properly vetted.”
The bill basically doesn’t change the way lakes and springs are protected, but it would force regulators to work more closely together. It’s sprinkled with references to “best management practices,” a way of giving polluters more leeway to police themselves.
The Senate version is also anchored to it. And that has environmentalists concerned.
Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper recently told a Senate committee best management practices aren’t always the best way when it comes to protecting the Everglades. And doing that means stopping the 450 tons of phosphorous that gush into Lake Okeechobee every year.
“The Everglades are the state’s most significant water quality, water challenge and this bill doesn’t go far enough to deal with the complexity of Lake Okeechobee and its impact on the Everglades.”
Cleaning up polluted water mostly boils down to lowering phosphorus and nitrogen levels. They feed an algae population boom.
When it comes to Florida springs, protection also means policing the amount of water in them. That means limiting the water diverted from them, or pumped from the aquifer that feeds them.
Laws in 1972 required setting the levels, but regulators haven’t always followed through. A handful still don’t have them and that’s a sticking point for some lawmakers. Like Republican Senator Alan Hays of Umatilla.
“One of the things that concerns me, though, is should we put a deadline in here as to when these minimum flows and levels need to be established?”
Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen is leaning toward the Senate bill because it removes a single word, “significantly.” Current law forces the state to clean up a polluted spring when pollution is “significantly harmful.”
The Senate would trigger cleanups when pollution reaches a “harmful” level. Cullen says neither the House nor the Senate goes far enough to encourage water conservation, like water reuse.
“People should not be watering their yards with drinking water. That just doesn’t make sense.”
Critics will have at least four more chances to take a shot at the Senate water regulation plan. It has three committee stops before it reaches the floor.