Overhaul of water policy on fast track in Florida House

A bill pushed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to overhaul the state’s water management system won bipartisan approval Thursday from the House Appropriations committee.

At nearly 100 pages, HB 7003 outlines numerous revisions to the state’s management of water quality and quantity that supporters, including House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, say modernizes Florida’s water policy to accommodate future growth.

Next stop is the floor of the Florida House.

“I thank [House leaders] for supporting a water bill policy that will secure the supply and quality of Florida’s water for generations to come,” Putnam said in a statement. “Florida’s water is one of our most precious resources, and the management of water quality and conservation has been and always will be a partnership.”

The bill requires that the state develop action plans for springs that are deemed impaired. It expands a plan to assist landowners to implement best management practices that, if done properly, could reduce agricultural runoff polluting Lake Okeechobee.

It won support from some Democrats, who said the bill was a good effort to clean up the Everglades and natural springs.

“This is a step forward in the right direction,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “It isn’t everything it ought to be, but what legislation the first time it’s filed is perfect? It’s perfected through the process and that process is obviously working.”

But the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, has drawn sharp criticism for not going far enough. Coming just months after voters overwhelming passed Amendment 1, which sets aside millions for projects intended to preserve environmentally-sensitive land, the bill makes no mention of costs.

For instance, a measure that would have the state pay half the costs for landowners to implement best management practices provides no cost estimate.

In addition, environmental groups are unhappy that the purchase of thousands of acres from U.S. Sugar south of Lake Okeechobee isn’t included. They want the land to be used as a reservoir to store water that, in turn, would siphon away pollutants.

“The big problem is that the land south of Lake Okeechobee isn’t in there,” said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. “If they’re serious about dealing with the Lake Okeechobee problem, buying that lake is low hanging fruit.”

But Crisafulli, who has strong ties to U.S. Sugar lobbyists, opposes the purchase. He instead supports an approach that’s mirrored in Caldwell’s bill that targets reducing pollution in the watershed north of Lake Okeechobee.

Currently, landowners in this area are required to follow permits issued to them by the South Florida Water Management District that limits the amount of phosphorous they can discharge. Under the bill, those limits would be replaced by a general target that all landowners must follow. Without individual limits, enforcement will be more complicated.

Landowners would be asked to implement land techniques recommended by Putnam’s Department of Agriculture that would reduce pollution, such as planting vegetation that would prevent nutrients from seeping into Lake Okeechobee.

But the Department of Agriculture has only eight staffers who monitor the 3.5 million acres north of Lake Okeechobee that would be subject to the new rules.

“With an area that big, how do we know the farmers are successfully implementing the best management practices?” said Douglas MacLaughlin, a former attorney with the South Florida Water Management District. “That’s a huge job. I don’t think there’s anyone who knows how they’re being implemented.”