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Monday, 17 August 2015 10:44

Water Resources Bill Could See New Life in Next Legislative Session

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State Representative Matt Caldwell, sponsor of Water Resources Bill HB 7003 State Representative Matt Caldwell, sponsor of Water Resources Bill HB 7003

It looked like smooth sailing for the passage of the Water Resources bill HB 7003 this past spring in the Florida Legislature. Sponsored by state representative Matt Caldwell, the bill dealt with modernizing water regulatory systems as well as numerous water issues. However, the bill died on the senate floor in late April when Florida’s Senate and House could not come to an agreement on the state budget and closed their session a few days early.

There are many who feel that the unexpected death of the bill was an opportunity, as it would afford more discussion on how amendment one money should be spent, as well what entities should be in charge of the management of the lands and water surrounding Lake Okeechobee.

“We want to make sure we are not in any way reducing regulatory pollution control in exchange for the big taxpayer-funded cleanup projects,” Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said. “While we need those projects, we know that those cleanup projects are designed to deal with existing pollution levels. If we don’t strengthen pollution control upstream, we’re going to see those levels continue to rise.”

“The current projects would not be sufficient to restore water quality,” Hecker noted.

The conservancy and many groups may get their chance to fight for further revisions to the bill. Since every bill effectively dies at the end of a legislative session, it means the Water Resources bill will have to go back to committee so it can be steered to the next legislative session in January.

One of the primary concerns about the bill was the potential transfer of this management from the South Florida Water Management District and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to the state’s Department of Agriculture.

When contacted about these concerns, Representative Caldwell insisted that they stem from a misunderstanding in the bill. However, while stating that the DEP will always be the final responsible entity for pollution control, Caldwell said that one criteria they included was Best Management Practices (BMPs) for agricultural farms. This would place these farms under the regulation of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).

“The main change that was contemplated in Lake Okeechobee is there is a section of regulation that predates the way we do everything nowadays,” Caldwell said. “Farms along the southern rim of the lake have regulations and permits that come from the early 1970s. The rest of the environmental regulations that we have in Florida today are invested in the Basin Action Management Plan program. The goal of that part of the bill is to move those farms under the same rules everyone else operates under.”

Hecker has concerns about the emphasis being placed on the Basin Management Plan, as it could come at the expense of the works of the SFWMD and regulations that have been put into place to proactively control pollution at its source.

“We were concerned that the bill, in putting the emphasis on that, did have some language that would potentially undermine regulatory measures that would control new sources of pollution,” Hecker said. “We really need to be dealing with those simultaneously if we’re going to achieve pollution limits and restore water quality.”

“There’s a lot of concern in the environmental community that FDACS is being given a lot of free rein in how it is being held responsible in how it’s reducing agricultural pollution,” Hecker said. “There is a presumption that if you put BMPs into effect, that they’re working and achieving a certain amount of reduction. However, very often they are not being monitored to ensure they’re actually achieving that level of pollution reduction, or the BMPs are being enacted in an effective fashion, or at all.”

The Water Resources bill is not the first piece of legislature sponsored by Caldwell that has caused alarm among environmentalists. In 2013, he was one of the driving forces behind the extension of the Florida Forever Act, which kept the share the sugar industry had to pay to clean up their lands at $25 an acre. Several environmental groups were quick to note that language in that extension undercut 1996’s Amendment 5, which held polluters in the Everglades Protection Area and Agricultural Area primarily responsible for the costs of cleaning up that pollution.

In reality, the Florida Forever Act extension effectively capped the sugar industries liability for their pollution at $25 an acre.

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