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Environment

Water Policy Bill Ready for Gov. Scott's Signature

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A statewide water-policy bill that is a top priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was overwhelmingly approved Thursday by the Florida House.

Gov. Rick Scott's office said he will sign the measure --- along with a separate proposals aimed at providing job and educational opportunities to people with developmental disabilities --- during a ceremony in the governor's office next Thursday.
 
The business-backed water bill (SB 552), which environmentalists say they will seek to make stronger in the future, was approved in a 110-2 vote. That came a day after the Senate unanimously supported the bill, which lawmakers have been trying to advance for more than two years.

"A comprehensive approach to water will result in our ability to protect our state's most precious resource from crisis," said House State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican and sponsor of the measure.

The proposal, in part, calls for establishing water-flow levels for springs and setting guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative, which is a regional water-supply planning effort that involves the state Department of Environmental Protection, the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and regional water utilities.

The bill also would further establish management plans for farming around 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.

"Next year we're going to have a report outlining all the natural resources commitments that we have made as a policy in the state and what the means from an appropriations standpoint," Caldwell said. "We've never really done that before."

The House action drew praise from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which released a statement calling the bill a "meaningful step in the right direction to help ensure Florida's water future doesn't go the way of California."

Putnam has 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.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a lobbyist on environmental issues, said the bill won't do anything if the provisions are not enforced and funded.

"The next step is to make sure the agencies do what the bill said they're going to do, and that is to create clean-up plans for the 39 outstanding Florida springs and to improve the clean-up plan for Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries," Draper said.
 
A number of Democrats said that while they would have liked to have seen more conservation measures in the bill, they considered the proposal "a foundation" upon which to improve upon in the future.

"It gives us a floor, something that we can work from to make it better in future generations," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, "But we must start somewhere.  And I think this bill is a good start."

House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Pafford and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, voted against the bill.

"This bill, unfortunately, leans towards agriculture," said Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat. "I don't think it delivers as much as it should."

Rodriguez said he had questions over the long-term costs because "of what's missing."

Pafford proposed four amendments that included a proposal from the Florida Springs Council to require water-management districts to estimate maximum sustainable groundwater withdrawals for each district. All four amendments failed in voice votes.

"Florida is facing a statewide water supply problem," Pafford said. "Water managers should have a clear idea as to how much water is actually being pumped, not only to ensure that large users are complying with their permits, but also to help water managers determine what levels of ground water withdrawals are sustainable."