State Politics

Environmentalists get their wish. Governor vetoes controversial wastewater bill.

Michael Ponce samples water at a Pembroke Pines treatment facility in 2011.
Michael Ponce samples water at a Pembroke Pines treatment facility in 2011. Miami Herald file photo

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a controversial bill Friday that would have encouraged the reuse of treated wastewater to recharge the state’s aquifer system, after some environmentalists criticized the impact they said the bill would have on the quality of the state’s water supply.

HB 1149, a wide-ranging environmental bill, would have made changes to require the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to work with regional water management districts to support the reuse of treated wastewater in the aquifer. The state already allows highly treated wastewater to be injected underground.

The bill would have also called for new requirements in the operation of the ongoing C-51 reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee, and the creation of a program that would have allowed sewer plants to obtain longer permits and a presumption of compliance with state pollution regulations.

Scott, who is expected to announce a run soon for the U.S. Senate, said environmental protection had been a “top priority during my time as governor,” and touted $4 billion in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget for environmental protections in a letter explaining his veto.

“I do not believe that approving HB 1149 is worth risking Floridians’ confidence in our existing water quality regulatory system,” he wrote, adding that he still supported some of its other provisions, including the ongoing reservoir project and the proposed utilities program. “I am not convinced that this legislation will not muddle Florida’s protection of our aquifers.”

Some environmental activists had criticized the provision encouraging wastewater reuse in the aquifer, dubbing the treated effluent “poopy water” and saying it could harm the state’s water supply.

“Florida is not responsible enough for its resources — it’s too deeply controlled by polluters to go down this road,” said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. She said even federal standards for cleaning wastewater would not sufficiently screen out pharmaceuticals that enter the system through human waste and that those substances, along with nutrients that might remain in drinking-level water, could cause permanent harm to Florida’s waterways and aquifer.

But supporters of the bill, including sponsor Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, had said the water would be sufficiently treated and that more aquifer recharge would help insulate the state against increased demand for water and stop saltwater intrusion because of rising sea levels.

“It’s a gross exaggeration — and I mean that as a pun,” Payne said of activists’ objections before the bill was vetoed.

In a state where water supply problems are a looming threat, reusing treated wastewater has already become a conservation priority, from industrial use in farming to the irrigation of lawns, golf courses and parks. It has also become an environmental tool used to hydrate wetlands. But how much wastewater is reused varies wildly from region to region: Some inland counties now recycle nearly all their water, though South Florida has lagged behind.

Some municipalities have already begun moving toward putting treated wastewater into the aquifer. The city of Clearwater is in the process of permitting a treatment facility to recycle wastewater and return it into the aquifer, and in the city of Tampa, officials are conducting a feasibility study for a recharge and recovery project to pump the wastewater 900 feet underground into the aquifer and recover it at a shallower depth to naturally treat it, before further filtering it at a water treatment facility or funneling it into a reservoir.

Returning water to the aquifer wouldn’t be an option everywhere: In Miami-Dade, where the cost of running the necessary pumps would pose issues, the county is weighing a plan to direct some of its wastewater to cooling canals for nuclear reactors at Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point power plant, in addition to putting water in deep-injection wells. Meant to comply with a 2008 state law that requires counties reuse at least 60 percent of their wastewater by 2025 instead of dumping it offshore, that plan has also drawn concerns about pollution issues for Biscayne Bay.

Activists had not been hopeful that Scott would veto the bill, pointing to what they said was the governor's shoddy record on environmental protections. But in an election year, Young said, Scott might be trying to burnish his credentials ahead of an expected showdown with incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.

“He’s definitely out there crisscrossing the state, trying to give the illusion that he cares,” Young said.

HB 1149 was the only legislation to be vetoed among the last set of bills Scott addressed from this year’s legislative session. He signed 17 other bills, including two education measures that would increase students’ access to computer science classes and allow them to use apprenticeship programs to satisfy some graduation requirements. He also signed bills that would allow gun purchasers to use credit cards to pay for their background checks, and that would make trespassing on airport property a third-degree felony provided there is adequate signage.

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