New Water Policy Expected to Flow in Session

From: News Service of Florida

News Service of Florida
Shortly after the 2016 legislative session goes through its opening rituals, the House and Senate will take up a statewide water-policy proposal more than two years in the making.

The proposal (SB 552 and HB 7005), which sped through legislative committees, has attracted some last-minute opposition from environmental groups that contend it wouldn’t go far enough to ensure clean waterways.

But the package, a priority of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, is expected to quickly win approval from the House and Senate.

The proposal seeks to establish water-flow levels for the state’s natural springs and set guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative, which is a regional water-supply planning effort that involves the Department of Environmental Protection, the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and regional water utilities.

The identical bills also include further management action plans for Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee Estuary and inland portions of the Caloosahatchee River watershed, and the St. Lucie River and Estuary.

The package also would require the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research to provide an annual assessment of the state’s water resources and conservation lands.

Lawmakers will take up the issue during the annual 60-day session, which starts Jan. 12. The House and Senate also put together major water-policy bills during the 2015 session but could not reach agreement on a final version.

“This bill is a heavy lift,” Putnam said. “It fell apart last year because it is a significant water policy that is comprehensive in nature and statewide in nature. If it were easy, it would be sailing through.”

However, unlike in the 2015 session the measure has been given a much simpler path heading into 2016.

Many bills go before three committees in each chamber before reaching the floor. The water-policy proposal was put before two Senate committees in November — where it received no votes in opposition — and a pair of House committees in October and November.

One of the House panels, the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, spent less than 30 minutes debating and taking public input on the proposal. Only Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, voted against the measure.

House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, expects the measure to face a little more scrutiny when it’s heard on the floor.

“It’s geared for ag, and water quality will be looked over,” Pafford, a critic of the package, said. “If you’re in the Apalachicola area, if you’re in Florida Bay, there is no relief coming.”

That is not a view shared by Republican leaders.

Crisafulli noted that groups such as The Nature Conservancy generally voiced support for the legislation at the committee meetings, as did groups such as the Florida Farm Bureau, the Florida Realtors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

“I think you will find them cherry-picking the things they do like in it, and then finding other things that they don’t,” Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said of the late round of opposition. “At the end of the day, I think we’ve got a good product in the policy piece.”

The most vocal opposition arose in early December, when 106 environmental organizations and businesses — including the Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Friends of the Everglades — signed a letter seeking 12 changes to the proposal.

Among the desired changes were stricter deadlines for cleaning waterways, stronger enforcement language against polluters, wider authority for regional water-management districts to review water-use permits and the ability of local governments to impose stronger restrictions on the use of fertilizer.

In the letter, the groups also raised questions about the Central Florida Water Initiative, which they said plans “surface water withdrawal projects that total nearly $1.8 billion, to be paid for with tax dollars and implemented and operated by private companies. … This represents a massive transfer of public money to private pockets.”

David Guest, managing attorney of the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, argued in a letter to newspaper editors that the water bill — “written by lobbyists for agricultural corporations” — is “a major rewrite of hundreds of clean water regulations that Florida has on the books.”

Guest objected to what he calls the mostly voluntary “best management practices” regulations for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the state’s natural springs.

“The changes are artful and subtle, and — if the bill passes — the effects are going to come back to haunt us all,” Guest said.

Putnam said the package is just a step in Florida meeting future water needs, as demand is expected to grow by more than 1.3 billion gallons a day by 2030. One-third of the growth is expected in the Orlando region.

“This builds on Florida’s strong tradition of water policy that dates back to the early ’70s,” Putnam said. “And it won’t be the end. I think there are things we need to continue to do, but in that march toward progress. This appears to be moving and I hope it goes all the way, unlike last year.”

Over the summer and fall, the House and Senate resolved differences that scuttled efforts to enact the statewide policies during the 2015 session.

The Senate’s push to include an oversight council to rate potential water projects was one of the sticking points earlier this year. The House agreed to have state economists perform some oversight, easing concerns from the Senate.

The policy doesn’t dictate funding, but provides some direction for spending money from a 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires 33 percent of an existing real estate tax to go toward land and water preservation and maintenance.