One could assume such a high-profile incident revolving around putting budget ahead of public safety would be a great lesson for other states and municipalities. However, there are many that fear that Florida may be putting politics in front of best practices this past week with Governor Rick Scott signing the Water Bill SB 552.
The bill’s main thrust is the establishment of water flow levels for springs, while also establishing guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative put forth by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Agriculture. However, there may be problems lying just under the surface.
The bill also puts in place management plans for agriculture around Lake Okeechobee and its estuaries: the Caloosahatchee River watershed, and the St. Lucie River.
"In order to accommodate our explosive growth and ensure that our state, residents and visitors thrive, we need this long-term, science-based and comprehensive approach to water policy," Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said in a statement, supporting the signing of the bill. "This legislation will help provide the resources to meet the needs of our growing population, while protecting our environment."
While Scott called the signing of the bill “a great start to the session,” many critics, including former Governor Bob Graham, felt the bill weakened Florida’s abilities to protect its waters. This includes limiting or dropping enforceable regulations against those who cause water pollution within the state, and allow the biggest users of water to move it around Florida at will.
“Although there are good elements in this bill, they come at too high a cost: provisions blatantly favoring special interests, tying the hands of the water management districts by further weakening current water protections, and largely ignoring the two most important requirements to protect these resources: conservation and stopping pollution at its source,” Graham stated in a letter written to Scott. The letter was submitted by the Florida Conservation Coalition. “Frankly stated, this bill leaves the people and businesses of Florida unprepared to meet the water challenges of the 21st century.”
As the latest session of the Florida legislature began, the water bill found near-universal support within the State Congress, passing through the Senate with a unanimous vote, and clearing the House of Representatives in a 110-2 vote. However, that same approval was not found within conservation groups that were keeping an eye on the process.
"This is a not a water policy bill,” Vicki Tschinkel, vice chair of 1000 Friends of Florida, said during a conference call with representatives of 100 Friends, the Sierra Club, the Florida Springs Council, and the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “It sets no new legal standards to protect Florida's water bodies from the over-pumping we have, the over-use we have, and the choking nutrients that are in our lakes, estuaries and springs.”
Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, went into more detail about the bill’s shortcomings in an interview with the Sun Bay Paper.
“While the bill had a few positives, such as policy changes in regards to springs and the northern Everglades, it has a number of detrimental policy changes that would lessen pollution control and the ability to get more fresh water flows to other parts of the state,” Hecker said. “On the whole, we felt the bill was doing more harm than good, and would actually lessen water resource protection statewide.”
“Even springs advocates like former Governor Graham know that the positive changes for springs should not come at the expense of negative policy changes for our water resources around the state,” Hecker continued.
One notable flaw in the water bill that Hecker pointed out was that it relies on Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for cleanup of rivers. “The problem with that is the BMAP only addresses existing sources of pollution. We know that is not adequate, because the monitoring data shows that after years of putting millions of dollars of projects in the ground, nutrient pollution levels continue to rise in the rivers.”
“We need to be addressing new sources of pollution,” Hecker concluded. “We need adequate requirements in place upstream to control pollution at its source. Those requirements are what this bill either lacks or removes.”
In light of the criticism and calls for a veto, Scott signed the bill last Thursday.
"I believe this is a good water bill,” Governor Scott said, while also giving praise to efforts to restore the Everglades among other water quality projects. "Our-legislature's doing an outstanding job in regard to water quality."
By Trent Townsend