State Politics

Florida Legislature strikes a balance on water rules

A manatee and her calf lounge in western Florida’s spring-fed Crystal River.
A manatee and her calf lounge in western Florida’s spring-fed Crystal River. Los Angeles Times

A compromise bill that attempts to strike a balance between the agriculture industry’s need for water and the public’s desire to restore degraded springs received approval from a key Senate committee Wednesday despite warnings from some environmentalists that it does little to reverse the pollution and over-pumping that has caused the damage.

The Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee unanimously approved SB 552 Wednesday and heralded it as a comprehensive water policy bill that gives farmers predictability and environmentalists some of the independent oversight they have sought.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, the chairman of the committee who has made the bill a top priority for the last three years, said it will “provide transparency” to water policy in Florida and will “show the entire nation that we are challenging the status quo.”

But environmentalists complained that while the measure makes some important progress in establishing new standards and definitions, it doesn’t do enough to restore Florida’s natural springs and aquifers, which have been declining at a rapid rate in the face of nitrate pollution and over-pumping.

“This water bill doesn’t go far enough. We need to have the water resources protected better. We need to have less water withdrawals,’’ said Merrilee Malwitz-Jipson of Our Santa Fe River, Inc.

The bill is on a fast-track after a previous version last year became a victim of the infighting that led the session to end last year without a budget.

This year, the House State Affairs Committee unanimously backed an identical version of the Senate bill last week, PCB SAC 16-01.

The bills require the Department of Environmental Protection to establish guidelines by July 1, 2017, such as minimum flow levels, to withdraw water from vulnerable Florida springs that do not yet have those protections in place.

It also directs the agency to adopt a uniform definition of what is considered “harmful” to Florida springs and calls for DEP to work with water management districts to establish five-year recovery plans intended to reduce pollution and pumping from the state’s most polluted springs.

And it requires DEP to develop remedies for 20 percent of the septic tanks that are determined to be polluting lakes, springs and waterways.

But Bob Palmer, the legislative committee chairman for the Florida Springs Council, a coalition of 35 groups formed last year to demand action to protect the state’s springs, told the committee that requiring more regulations of an agency that has failed to enforce existing laws is shortsighted.

“I think a lot more can be done in terms of oversight, holding the agency’s feet to the fire,” when regulations don’t produce the desired result, he said.

He noted that regulators too often rely on models to justify policies that allow problems to continue. For example, Manatee Springs, Wekiva Springs and other waterways have had regulations relating to minimum flow requirements in place for years and “aren’t making it.”

“I don’t find a certain amount of harm is acceptable,” he said. “I think there should be no harm.”

But Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, countered that the goal of the committee was to create a new standard that will “prevent groundwater withdrawals that are harmful” and he expects regulators to develop a new definition that the public will have input in.

“I don’t know how much better the Legislature can do to putting something together than this,’’ he said.

Ryan Smart of 1000 Friends of Florida said that while there are good elements in the bill, some provisions will allow for excessive pumping of water from the state’s aquifers with little or no oversight.

For example, while the bill allows for monitoring of consumptive use permits that use eight-inch pipes — which can withdraw 2 million gallons of water a day — it does not require monitoring of people who draw water using six-inch pipes which can pump more than 1.5 million gallons a day.

“Since this provision will only apply to new or modified permits, anyone can just come in with a six-inch pipe, or two six-inch pipes or three six-inch pipes and get around it,” he said.

The bill makes several concessions to agriculture and business interests, which had opposed a stricter version being pushed in the Senate last year.

For example, one provision that would have put limits on groundwater pumping from water bodies if it was determined that the pumping would have been “significantly harmful” was removed.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and at (850) 222-3095. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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