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Thursday, 01 October 2015 13:41

Putnam Reaffirms Support for Controversial Water Resources Bill Featured

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Adam Putnam - Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam - Commissioner of Agriculture

Water quality has been at the forefront of many Floridian’s minds over the past few decades, and at the center of it all is the health and flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee. Protracted debates have raged on over how water releases should be handled at the Lake, with the estuaries now connecting it to the east and west coasts of the state bearing the brunt. However, options of where the excess water can flow are limited by the buildup of agriculture on the Lake’s southern border, disrupting the historic flow to the Everglades.

This past week, at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Future of Florida Forum in Orlando, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam spoke on water issues that Florida may face in the near future. One of the main points of Putnam’s speech was the need to create new water policies for the state, in order to combat a projected “billion-gallon-a-day shortfall” within the next fifteen years.

Putnam’s solution to this problem, however, is the passage of HB 7003, a water resources bill that died like many others in the Florida Legislature earlier this year when the House adjourned in April, arriving at an impasse over Medicaid expansion.

HB 7003’s summary reads: “Revises provisions relating to water resource development; establishment & implementation of minimum flows & levels & total maximum daily loads; Central Florida Water Initiative; projects of South Florida Water Management District; preferred water supply sources; consumptive use permit applications; improvements on private agricultural lands; Northern Everglades & Estuaries Protection Program; power & duties of water management districts with regard to water production & water resource & supply development; regional water supply planning; springs & aquifer protection; surface water classification; & potable water supply.”

Many groups that keep an eye on the Florida environment have criticized the bill, saying that it took away a 2015 deadline for Lake Okeechobee cleanup, which would have reduced the annual dump of phosphorus into the Lake from a maximum of 400 tons to just over 100 tons. It is also criticized for having what many see as an overreliance on agricultural best management practices (BMP) under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture, rather than oversight from organizations like the South Florida Water Management District and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Putnam, seen as a frontrunner for the Republican Party’s nomination for the gubernatorial race in 2018, said that progress was made this past year towards getting the bill approved by both the house and senate of the State Legislature.

"The House and the Senate have worked very hard throughout the last year to close the big gap between their two ideas,” Putnam said the Forum. “We're on the goal line.”

"We need your help to punch it across the goal line this year,” Putnam continued. “Not to monkey with it. Not to go back and litigate the fights that were resolved last session. Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered. Let's pass the bill we have this year, in this session, so that we can move on to all the other economic-development issues that our state faces."

However, many groups feel the effects of HB 7003, as it stands, would be a detriment to the work of cleaning up Florida’s waters, and that more work needs to be done.

“Just one bill is not going to solve all of Florida’s water problems,” Mark Perry, Executive Director of the Florida Oceanographic Institute, said. “There’s a lot in (HB 7003) that talks about restructuring the Water Districts and taking away some of their authority, allowing more permitting for agricultural uses. It’s favorable to certain industries, but it’s not a ‘solve-all’ bill.”

“The legislature has a lot of work to do, and the Governor (Rick Scott) needs to get behind something to help these Florida initiatives,” Perry continued.

“BMPs are voluntary and have failed miserably over the past few decades at regulating the pollution of our waters,” Ray Judah, coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, said. “Putting the Department of Agriculture in charge of managing water quality improvements would not be appropriate, as agriculture is the largest culprit in producing the pollution that leads to the decline of our waterways. This move seems self-serving, and wouldn’t establish the independent oversight needed for effective regulation.”

This is not the first time this month that Putnam has dipped his toe into the environmental issues plaguing our state. Earlier in September, Putnam and the Department of Agriculture put in a request for some of the money that was set aside by Amendment 1 for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Of the Fund’s $700 million it received this year, Putnam asked for $337,842 for the replacement of old Office of Agricultural Policy vehicles, $3 million for construction and maintenance for the Florida Forest Service (and an additional $2.8 million request for road repair funds), and $1.2 million for the information technology services.

Amendment 1 passed with approximately three-quarters of the vote in the November 4, 2014 election, with a stated purpose to put money into “the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites, by dedicating 33 percent of net revenues from the existing excise tax on documents for 20 years.”

Putnam’s requests were among many similar ones made by various Florida Departments that were seen by environmental groups as misuses of the funding that Voter’s asked to be set aside for conservation efforts.

“The Legislature robbed the people of Florida, and took away their intent to put over $700 million into the Land Acquisition Trust Fund every year for the next twenty years,” Perry said. “Basically, the legislature said that they are going to put it in everywhere else that they can, legally, and stick it into maintenance and trucks and the like. Agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the FDEP are supplanting their operational budgets with Amendment 1 dollars. Only about $55 million went towards land acquisition up in the Kissimmee region.”

“We need to put some money aside in a long-term way for land acquisition,” Perry said. “We need more land to store and treat water both to the north and south ends of the Lake. Right now, only about 13 percent of the water coming out of Okeechobee goes to the Everglades, and it used to be a hundred percent. Now, the Everglades agricultural area gets to use the Everglades as a dumping ground for their runoff.”

“We need to move water south, instead of to the east and west through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie,” Perry said, warning that the releases are destroying the estuaries, and wasting water that should be going to the Everglades.

“You have to grow the water pie, not just stick more straws in to the existing resources,” Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, said. “If we fail on the Everglades’ restoration, these other issues are going to be for naught.”

By Trent Townsend

Read 2287 times Last modified on Thursday, 01 October 2015 14:21

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