Water issues a top priority for environmentalists

Tallahassee, FL – Supporters of the state's environmental programs came out to the Capital on the first day of session to draw attention to several land use bills making their way through the legislature. As Lynn Hatter reports the groups are for some of them, and against others.

At the top of the groups list of concerns is a septic tank law that is up for repeal. It was met with an outcry from rural homeowners who said the costs associated with the measure were too high. Preston Robertson with the Florida Wildlife Federation says he understands those concerns, but the state has to make protecting the environment a priority.

"We're not for any of the bills that will denigrate water quality. The septic tank bill was a great idea two years ago, but now with the turmoil and crashing of our economy, people are very upset about having to pay any extra dollars. So I'm very sympathetic to that though I do think people need to get their septic tanks cleaned out and people are responsible to their neighbors to do so, so as to not befoul our drinking water."

Marianna Republican Marti Coley is sponsoring the repeal bill. She says it's been the biggest issue all year in her rural North Florida district.

"Everyone wants clean water. We all want to be responsible. But having a statewide mandate that treats a widow-woman with one septic tank on 10 acres of land, the same as someone in a densely populated area is absurd. This was bad policy."

The law sets septic inspections at every five years and mandates the replacement of tanks if they fail. Environmentalists are also watching what happens to the state's land-buying conservation program Florida Forever. It was zeroed-out of Governor Rick Scott's budget proposal. But Julie Wraithmell with the Audubon Society of Florida says the state should continue to invest in the program and look for alternatives.

"You need a certain amount of funding for continuity sake. Now the good thing about Florida Forever is that we can buy conservation easements. That means instead of buying the land outright you simply buy the development rights for it. And that helps to keep the land in production if its agricultural, the owner can continue living on it, it doesn't take it off of tax rolls, and it's a way to stretch our dollars further."

Those easements may be a possible solution as lawmakers look to fill the state's budget deficit. They're also being promoted by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. He says not only will this keep government from dictating how property owners use their land, but it would be a viable alternative to the state spending money it doesn't have for lands it wants to protect.

"And that is an evolving change of thought by the state that is gaining widespread acceptance by landowners and allows the state to stretch their dollars further and protect more acres with less impact to local government tax bases."

Lawmakers are also looking a bill on fertilizers that would take away local governments ability to regulate its use. The bill has sparked concerns that it could further hurt Florida's water quality.

Still, there is agreement that virtually all of the environmental policy changes this year will come down to water. Proposals dealing with fertilizers, septic tanks and land-acquisition all fall within that scope. And the state will be looking to try and balance the environmental issues with a dwindling amount of money.