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State News

Hopes For Stronger Water Bill Evaporate

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Sponsors of a major rewrite of the state’s water policy are claiming victory after easy passage during the first week of the legislative session. But critics are asking Governor Rick Scott for a veto. They say the bill will do little to protect Florida’s freshwater springs, Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades.

The bill passed in the first week of session because House and Senate leaders are eager in an election year to claim environmental street cred. On the Senate floor Friday, President Andy Gardner described it in historic terms.

“This has been a good week for the residents of the great state of Florida. These bills, the water bill and others, we’re changing lives with that.”

But critics say the bill doesn’t measure up -- literally.

One provision says water doesn’t have to be metered if it’s flowing through a pipe narrower than eight inches in diameter. That language was added by business lobbyists, says Bob Palmer, an executive committee member of the Florida Springs Council.

“Can they afford 200, 300 bucks a year to actually tell the citizens of Florida how much water they’re sucking out of the ground? I think they can. But apparently somebody thought that was too much of a burden so they inserted that huge loophole.”

The Springs Council and more than 100 other groups sent a strongly worded letter to Gardner and his House counterpart earlier this year. The letter recommended a dozen changes.

House Democrat Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach tried to add some of the changes when the bill reached the floor. Many of the changes were deceptively simple.

One would have required regulators to set a regional limit on water withdraws. The current piecemeal permitting approach makes it too hard to protect springs from over pumping, Pafford said.

“Permits are analyzed individually, cumulative effects are discounted, actual data on water flows are ignored in favor of model predictions. There’s an inherent bias towards granting permits for economic reasons.”

Pafford also wanted to require anyone pumping more than 100 thousand gallons of water a day from a well to install meters. Many Florida farmers estimate the amount of water they withdraw by the electricity their pumps use.

The amendments died. Sponsors said that after more than three years of negotiations, it was time to vote.

The bill focuses on three main areas. It orders regulators to set minimum flow levels for the state’s 39 major freshwater springs.  It sets guidelines for a regional water supply plan for Central Florida. And it sets guidelines for cleaning up Lake Okeechobee and the Northern Everglades.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is frustrated with the critics. Mainstream environmental groups like Audubon of Florida and The Nature Conservancy were key players, he says.

“It’s a broad-based coalition. It’s not the end of the work that needs to be done on water policy. But it’s an important step forward.”

Cris Costello, a regional organizer for the Sierra Club, wants lawmakers to get back to work this session while water is still on everyone’s mind. She says the bill focuses on tapping new water sources and ignores an obvious solution.

“Conserving water at the local level other rather than going to other basins to move water from one basin to another.”

Costello complains the bill is still based on a “best management practices” philosophy that mostly lets polluters police themselves.

Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper says the bill falls far short of landmark reform. However, he says the greens who stayed at the table prevented a wholesale attack on existing protections.

Businesses, farmers and most of the public would be up in arms if the bill made the most important changes needed to clean up and protect Florida’s water supply, Draper said.

“We would put significant restrictions on all fertilizer use. We would hook up almost all septic tanks to central sewer systems. We would eliminate the practice of applying any sewage products onto the landscape, such as disposing of a sludge, or using wastewater for landscape irrigation…”

Meanwhile, critics calling for a veto should brace themselves. Scott is scheduling a bill signing ceremony for Thursday.