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Despite protests from environmentalist, it's easy sailing for House water bill

Mattcaldwell@mikevansickler

Environmental groups sent alerts marked “URGENT” warning members about HB 7003 minutes before it was taken up Wednesday afternoon on the House floor.

“With this bill, Florida legislators are protecting developers and Big Ag at the expense of the public,” said an e-mail blast from David Guest, managing attorney at the Florida office of Earthjustice.

“HB 7003 falls short on protecting Florida’s water,” said a flier by Audubon Florida.

“Please call your State House Representative and ask him or her to VOTE NO ON HB 7003 because it falls short on springs protection, conservation and Lake Okeechobee cleanup,” said an e-mail from 1000 Friends of Florida.

Yet for all the fuss, the bill is expected to easily pass Thursday in a chamber where Republicans hold a 80-39 advantage over Democrats. After a day of polite questioning from his caucus members, Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, acknowledged that it’s possible a majority of Democrats will end up supporting the legislation, making it the first bill to clear the House in 2015.

“Thank goodness for the Senate,” Pafford said.

Whatever role the Senate has in tempering HB 7003 will be decided in the next 58 days. But for now, with the support of House Republicans and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, the 94-page bill has momentum.

Its sponsor, bow-tie bedecked Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, touts the bill as science-based overhaul of a system that will strengthen water planning, modernize the restoration of the northern Everglades region, expand the protections of natural springs and reduce needless regulation of agribusinesses and developers.

“What you see here is a product that meets the expectations of the stakeholders and I think it’s a good product,” Caldwell told reporters on Wednesday.

On Thursday, he deftly handled questioning from Democrats who asked if the bill eliminated a deadline to clean-up Lake Okeechobee. On page 66, in fact, a Jan. 1, 2015 deadline to establish water quality to clean up the lake is taken out of statute.

Caldwell said the bill creates basin management plans and “best management practices” that will govern, and improve, the water quality of Lake Okeechobee.

It’s up to state lawmakers to fund the subsequent projects those plans determine would be necessary to do that, Caldwell said.

He said that even though the state was adopting a new approach in its oversight of agribusinesses that dump waste into water, it was still going to be under the control of the Department of Environmental Protection.

But the Department of Agriculture, which promotes those same agribusinesses, clearly is expanding its role. It adopts the “best management practices” that farmers would follow. It’s not clear how the state will enforce the land management guidelines to make sure anyone actually follows them.

For instance, the Department of Agriculture has eight inspectors to patrol the 3.5 million acres north of Lake Okeechobee that would replace the permitting system, which is enforced by fines, with the best management practices. How do eight inspectors patrol such a large area to make sure the practices are being implemented correctly or at all?

“At the end of the day, it’s on DEP to make sure the water quality standards are being met,” Caldwell said.

But how many state workers does it take to inspect the properties?

“When it comes to all of the agencies, I’m going to look to the executive branch to let us know whether they think they’re able to adequately meet the goals that we set,” Caldwell said.

Pafford said the bill was “a lot of words without anything to back it up.” There’s no price tag attached to how much any of this will cost or a clear understanding of how the new system will work, he said.

“This is a very complex bill that missed a very important set of committees,” Pafford said. “That’s not a great way to establish comprehensive water policy.”

Yet it’s a cinch to pass Thursday, thanks to it being the top priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. 

Crisafulli likes to say his proposed overhaul of the state’s water management system represents a modern, scientific approach.

But the University of Florida released a study this week that provides ammo to environmentalists who argue that the best way to the state to divert pollution is to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee. Florida has an option to buy 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land that was part of a deal struck by former Gov. Charlie Crist. It allows the state to buy the land at market value, but the option expires in October.

U.S. Sugar has development plans on that land, which, if approved, would make the land more valuable. Crisafulli, who is tight with U.S. Sugar lobbyists, opposes the purchase of the land, saying it isn’t necessary. If farmers follow “best management practices” and action plans they can reduce enough pollution to make a difference, Crisafulli says.

The study states otherwise.

“Achieving substantial reduction in lake-triggered discharges to the estuaries and substantial improvement toward the dry season Everglades demand target will require additional land between the lake and the EPA, e.g., the current U.S. Sugar land purchase option,” the study states. “The particular 46,000 acres at issue may be useful for additional storage and treatment or may serve as lands that the state could trade with other agricultural interests in the area if land in different locations are needed.”

Caldwell said the U.S. Sugar land isn’t the best option. He said it would make more sense for the state upgrade the A1 Reservoir could be upgraded to store “far more water” than the U.S. Sugar land could. He said it would be cheaper because it wouldn’t need as much remediation as the U.S. Sugar land.

Both Caldwell and Crisafulli are seemingly unconcerned about how far apart the House is right now from the Senate. SB 918, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, provides bigger protection zones for natural springs, an advisory board on Amendment 1 spending, and doesn’t tinker with the northern Everglades protection area like Caldwell’s bill does.

The Senate is expected to pass that bill next week, when the negotiations between the two chambers can begin.

“Water is an issue that’s important to the House,” Crisafulli told reporters Tuesday. “I know it’s important to the Senate as well. The sooner we start the conversations on it the better off we are. It’s not a very easy issue to work out.”

The Senate is the last best hope for environmentalists like Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

“Our goal for today was just to get enough debate on the bill so that the Senate actually says, ‘Wait a minute, this is not just a kumbaya bill, this is something we really need to be the mature body and seriously look at this.'”

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