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Environmentalists: Water Protection Bill Has Loopholes

Rainbow Springs
Steve Newborn
Rainbow Springs

A massive bill to protect Florida's springs, waterways and groundwater appears headed for passage at the start of the coming legislative session, despite objections from environmentalists who say it's been weakened by the influence of industry and agriculture interests.

They say they still hope floor amendments will close loopholes in Senate and House companion bills SB 552 and HB 7005, and are trying to pressure legislators.

"We're going to gin up some grass roots involvement, and we expect to generate a healthy amount of calls and emails to legislators," said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club.

Sponsors, including Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, say that after all the time and work spent on the bill, they oppose last-minute changes.

"This has been debated, worked over and heard in committees for nearly three years," Caldwell said. "It has many fathers, many negotiations that have gone into it. Adding (amendments) at this point I don't think would be productive."

Some water quality advocates say they consider the bill in its present form a step forward.

"It definitely moves protection of Florida springs and the northern Everglades forward," said Eric Draper of the Audubon Society. "I've been working on this for more than a year, and I know where we got beat. I can't really find that many things that are objectionable in the legislation."

Environmentalist backers, including Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando and House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, say they'll bring up floor amendments reflecting some of the criticisms.

But Soto, recently named Audubon's Champion of the Everglades, also said he wants the bill to pass despite his concerns. If it's not passed this year, when both House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner back it, he said, "We might not have the juice to get it done later."

Caldwell said it's designed to fix a history of "rampant, unfettered development and poor decisions made from the 1920s to the 1960s."

The legislation was vetted by only two committees in each house, a small number for a big, complex bill, indicating it's been greased for passage, Pafford said. In all four committees there was only one "no" vote, Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

The heavily lobbied bill got backing from interest groups not known for environmental dedication, including Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Realtors and the sugar industry.

Pafford called it "emblematic of a system that is paid for and owned by large corporate interests that will make a huge amount of profit from a resource that Florida's having trouble storing and keeping clean."

The bill modifies dozens of areas of Florida law including controlling pollution and restoring natural water flows in springs and rivers; developing alternative water supplies; water use permitting; and restoring flows and preventing pollution around Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades.

A group of 106 environmental organizations and businesses recently wrote to legislators, outlining criticisms and proposing 13 amendments.

The letter notes that the bill fails to include water conservation, "despite its being the more cost-effective and sustainable alternative to increasing the state's supply of water." Caldwell said critics should focus instead on what's in the bill.

The bill's enforcement and monitoring procedures also drew objections.

For example, it requires monitoring water use by users who pump more than 100,000 gallons of groundwater a day - but only if they use 8-inch or larger pipes. A 6-inch pipe can pump more than 1.5 million gallons a day, critics note.

Caldwell said the section is aimed at commercial users, and that thousands of farmers who use smaller pipes can't all be monitored.

The bill limits septic tanks surrounding springs - one of the main causes of loss of water quality in the springs - but critics say developers could continue to install septic tanks for up to seven years after they've been determined to be a problem.

Caldwell said requiring central sewerage systems would be too costly and in some cases not as effective in preventing pollution as systems including septic tanks.

Critics also say the bill restricts local governments' ability to limit use of fertilizer, a contributor to runoff pollution, and requires bureaucratic procedures that would discourage a water management district from denying applications for excessive water use. The say the bill includes no deadlines for setting limits on pollution allowed to flow into waterways and allows up to 32 years to meet goals for flows and pollutions limits.

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