Florida

Houses passes water bill by wide margin, despite concerns from environmentalists

-- Dismissing pleas from environmental groups, the Florida House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an agricultural industry-backed overhaul of the state’s water management and preservation system that could force taxpayers to pick up more costs.

HB 7003, which revises the state’s oversight of water quality and quantity, now heads to the Senate where it faces a much tougher battle.

The House Bill adds protections of polluted natural springs and loosens regulations for landowners north of Lake Okeechobee in exchange for a business-friendly program that subsidizes landowners near impaired waters if they reduce fertilizer-polluted discharge.

The bill also shifts some oversight of landowners north of Lake Okeechobee from the South Florida Water Management District, which is controlled by Gov. Rick Scott, to a program managed by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is helmed by Commissioner Adam Putnam, a favorite to succeed Scott in 2018.

The bill passed 106-9. Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, was among the 106 in favor, but later changed his vote to a “no” because he said he made a mistake and pressed the wrong button.

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, the bill is the top priority of Putnam and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, both of whom work in their families’ agribusinesses.

“Florida’s most unifying feature is our water, and the House of Representatives has shown great leadership in passing a bill that will provide a comprehensive, long-term and flexible approach to protecting the supply and quality of our water now and in the future,” Putnam said in a statement.

The bill’s fate in the Senate is far less certain. The Senate’s version of a water bill, SB 918, provides broader protection zones for natural springs, an advisory board that will rank projects eligible for funding from Amendment 1 that passed in November, and nothing that eases regulations for Lake Okeechobee landowners. That bill is expected to pass the Senate next week.

While environmental groups say both bills have strong and weak points, they prefer the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.

The most controversial piece in the House bill centers on a 3.5-million acre watershed north of Lake Okeechobee. This area is viewed as critical because the runoff from farmlands feed into Lake Okeechobee, contributing to the overall health of the Everglades.

On page 66 of the 94-page bill, a Jan. 1, 2015 deadline to establish water quality standards to clean up the lake is taken out of the statute. Caldwell said that didn’t eliminate the deadline. He said it will be up to lawmakers to fund the projects it will take to ensure Lake Okeechobee gets clean.

More alarming to environmental groups, however, is that the bill eases the oversight of landowners who contribute to the pollution of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Currently, farmers north of Lake Okeechobee are required to follow permits issued by the South Florida Water Management District that restrict the amount of phosphorous they can discharge. Violators can be fined and have their permits to discharge water taken away. Under the bill, that system would be replaced and farmers would be asked to adopt better land management techniques, or “best management practices,” or BMPs.

Yet unlike permits, which set limits, systems relying on BMPs set more general goals.

In addition, landowners are paid 75 percent of the costs in state or federal funds to implement best management practices designed to reduce pollution. The bill proposes expanding the BMP program across the state, which would cost more money. The Department of Agriculture is requesting $10 million for the BMPs in the northern Everglades and suggests another $15 million for larger scale water projects north of Lake Okeechobee, according to a staff analysis.

“We are disappointed to see the House pass a bill that does not provide a deadline or a full plan for cleaning up Lake Okeechobee,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, in a Thursday statement. “We have serious concerns about eliminating a mandatory permit-based system for controlling pollution and replacing it with a voluntary reporting program.”

Eikenberg’s group joined the Sierra Club, Audubon Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Springs Council and Earthjustice in urging lawmakers to vote against the House bill.

“(BMPs) have proven ineffective for restoring springs in the past, and in fact, are allowing the continuing and increasing impairment at most of Florida’s springs,” said Robert Palmer, the Florida Springs Council’s legislative chair. “It is likely that continued application of these existing regulatory tools, even at an accelerated pace, will have little positive effect in restoring Florida’s springs.”

Yet of the 39 Democrats in the House, 29 voted for it, some of whom had been lobbied by U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals and the Florida Land Council before the vote.

“Nothing in this bill serves to weaken the state’s ability to protect and restore the natural resources,” said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation. “It provides the proper focus and effort to improve water quality standards.”

With such a wide margin of support, Crisafulli said it puts the House in a stronger negotiating position with the Senate.

“It makes a good statement to the fact that this is a great place for us to start,” Crisafulli said. “It’s a good foundation for us to build from. It’s a bipartisan approach.”

Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler.

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