The chorus demanding that Gov. Rick Scott veto a sweeping water policy hastily passed by the Florida Legislature last week just got a little louder.
On Wednesday, Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and Florida governor, called the 134-page bill a “purposeful effort to weaken protection” of state waters increasingly threatened by pollution, waste and rising consumption. In a letter to Scott, Graham said the bill “blatantly” favors special interests, ties the hands of local water management districts and mostly ignores two key measures in protecting water: conservation and rules to stop pollution at its source.
The guiding light ought to be conservation.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham
“The guiding light ought to be conservation. We can’t grow ourselves out of the challenge of 40 million people wanting access to the same water quantity that Florida has historically had,” Graham told the Herald, referring to Scott’s aggressive growth policies.
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Last week, the Florida House and Senate quickly passed expansive bills to address water issues, from imperiled springs in the central and northern part of the state to cleanup efforts in Lake Okeechobee needed to restore the Everglades. The bills evolved from legislation drafted in 2014. That effort, supported by Graham and his Florida Conservation Commission, narrowly focused changes on restoring the state’s rapidly deteriorating springs. At least 24 springs have been deemed impaired, and while efforts have been under way to stop pollution from septic systems, urban pollution and agriculture, they continue to decline.
Chaos in the Legislature last year prevented any measure from moving forward. But this month, on the eve of the session, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli unveiled a plan he said was crafted with the help of both powerful agricultural and development interests and environmental groups including Audubon Florida, the Everglades Foundation and the Nature Conservancy. Crisafulli said the plan would “modernize” Florida’s water policy with new rules for the springs, uniform permitting, Lake Okeechobee clean-up and better planning.
Some conservationists, however, say the changes largely do the opposite and force taxpayers to foot the bill for cleaning up pollution. Last week, a letter signed by more than 100 environmental groups and businesses was sent to Scott also demanding a veto.
The letter writers say the changes weaken rules by more than doubling the duration of permits for massive water withdrawals to between 30 and 40 years. If a local water management district attempts to deny a permit, the changes allow the Department of Environmental Protection to demand districts find a way to approve the request. And in regions where water is scarce, the law allows for the use of other sources including surface water that could further damage supplies.
The law would also hinder long-standing efforts to repair the Everglades by setting up new time lines for cleaning up Lake Okeechobee, where levels of phosphorus from decades of farming and nearby urban runoff continue to rise.
A spokeswoman said Wednesday that Scott intends to sign the bill in his office Thursday.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that Audubon Florida and the Everglades Foundation backed the bill. The groups worked to write legislation but never endorsed the final bill.