Environmental groups want Scott to veto water bill

Environmentalists say sweeping legislation to address concerns over Florida’s fragile water supply does too little and should be vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Environmentalists say sweeping legislation to address concerns over Florida’s fragile water supply does too little and should be vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. MCT

Sweeping bills to address concerns over Florida’s imperiled water supplies were rushed through the Legislature this week and should be rejected by Gov. Rick Scott, environmental groups said in a press briefing Friday.

The twin bills, which have been in the works for nearly two years , were overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers with the support of the agriculture industry as well as the Department of Environmental Protection. Scott has said he plans to sign the bills next Thursday.

But critics, including more than 100 groups and businesses, say the measure fails to accomplish much-needed reforms that would help regulate water use and pollution and also strips control from local water management districts. The legislation also weakens water pollution controls in the Northern Everglades and fails to protect sensitive lands around springs. Instead, critics say the bills largely set up a shell game of commissions and reports.

“Reports and rearranging commissions cleans up absolutely nothing. In fact, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind,” said Victoria Tschinkel, a board member of 1000 Friends of Florida and a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation.

Environmental groups have been working for years to toughen protection of Florida’s fragile water supply. Legislation in 2014 proposed spending about $378 million per year to get rid of septic tanks on sensitive land around springs. It also required the DEP to set limits on how much water could be pumped from springs, as well as limits on fertilizer use and slaughterhouse operations. But just before the session started, business groups including developers, the fertilizer industry and the Florida Chamber of Commerce announced their opposition.

Tschinkel said that over the summer groups began meeting to hammer out a new water policy, but mostly excluded environmental groups.

“There was a group of people somewhere working on this enormous piece of legislation somewhere over the summer,” she said, noting that the bills came before only two committees.

“That’s absolutely unheard of for a major piece of legislation that affects every part of every Floridian’s life,” she said.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, made the legislation a top priority for this session.

Even though Scott has said he’ll sign the bill, the group said it’s not too late for him to send it back to be reworked by lawmakers.

“We must live within our water means and have reasonable responses to water conservation,” said St. John’s Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman.

The groups say they’ll work to get amendments attached to other legislation to increase protection but worry the piecemeal approach will be harder to pass.

“Those amendments each become a political hot potato,” said Sierra Club Staff Director Frank Jackalone. “It’s unlikely they will wind up doing nothing.”