Despite pleas from environmental groups, the Florida House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an agricultural industry-backed overhaul of the state’s water management and preservation system that could force taxpayers to pick up more costs.
HB 7003 makes numerous revisions to the state’s oversight of water quality and quantity, including new action plans to protect natural springs that are impaired, an easing of regulations on landowners north of Lake Okeechobee and an expansion of a program that helps landowners near impaired waters to reduce fertilizer-polluted discharge.
Under the bill, landowners will be paid 75 percent of the costs in state or federal funds to implement “best management practices,” or BMPs, designed to reduce pollution. The Department of Agriculture is requesting $10 million for the BMPs in the northern Everglades and suggests another $15 million for larger scale water projects north of Lake Okeechobee, according to a staff analysis.
Sponsored by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, the bill is the top priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, both of whom work in their families agribusinesses.
“Florida’s most unifying feature is our water, and the House of Representatives has shown great leadership in passing a bill that will provide a comprehensive, long-term and flexible approach to protecting the supply and quality of our water now and in the future,” said Putnam in a statement.
Their bill passed 106-9, (though Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg later said he changed his vote from a "yes" to a "no") making it the first bill passed by the House in 2015.
It now heads to the Senate where its fate is much less certain. The Senate’s water bill, SB 918, provides broader protection zones for natural springs, an advisory board that will rank projects eligible for funding from Amendment 1 that passed in November, and nothing that eases regulations for Lake Okeechobee landowners. That bill is expected to pass the Senate next week.
While environmental groups say both bills have strong and weak points, they strongly prefer the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.
The most controversial piece in the House bill focuses on a 3.5-million acre watershed north of Lake Okeechobee. This area is seen as critical because the runoff from farmlands feed into Lake Okeechobee, contributing to the overall health of the Everglades.
On page 66 of the 94-page bill, a Jan. 1, 2015 deadline to establish water quality standards to clean up the lake is taken out of statute. Caldwell said that didn’t eliminate the deadline. He said it will be up to lawmakers to fund the projects it will take to ensure Lake Okeechobee gets clean.
More alarming to environmental groups, however, is that bill eases the oversight of landowners who contribute to the pollution of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
Currently, farmers north of Lake Okeechobee area are required to follow permits issued by the South Florida Water Management District that limits the amount of phosphorous they can discharge. Violators can be fined and have their permits to discharge water taken away. Under the bill, that system would be replaced and farmers would be asked to implement BMPs, which set goals for landowners to meet, not limits.
“We are disappointed to see the House pass a bill that does not provide a deadline or a full plan for cleaning up Lake Okeechobee,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, in a Thursday statement. “We have serious concerns about eliminating a mandatory permit-based system for controlling pollution and replacing it with a voluntary reporting program.”
Eikenberg’s group joined the Sierra Club, Audubon Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and Earthjustice in urging lawmakers to vote against the House bill.
"Our goal would be to get the Lake Okeechobee piece taken out," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. "And to get the Senate version of the springs’ issues."
But only nine Democrats voted against the bill, meaning the vast majority, some of whom had been lobbied heavily by U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and the Florida Land Council before the vote, supported it.
"Nothing in this bill serves to weaken the state’s ability to protect and restore the natural resources,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation.
“It provides the proper focus and effort to improve water quality standards.”
“There is much yet to work on,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “But it is a strategy to achieving positive accomplishments for our water quality and environment.”