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Environment

Environmental Group Challenges 'Clean Waterways Act'

Shot from underneath the Hubert Humphrey Bridge in Cocoa Beach
Emily Felts/Fresh Take Florida

The environmental group Speak Up Wekiva has filed a federal lawsuit contending that a water-protection bill signed this week by Gov. Ron DeSantis could block a local ballot initiative.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Orlando, argues the new law (SB 712), dubbed the “Clean Waterways Act,” could preempt the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights, known as WEBOR, an Orange County charter amendment proposed by the group for the Nov. 3 ballot.

The new law prohibits local governments from providing legal rights to any plant, animal, body of water or other part of the natural environment unless specifically authorized by the state. The law also allows current local biosolids ordinances to remain on the books until repealed.

"This matter is of utmost importance today because the governor, with a stroke of his pen, eviscerated the rights of citizens and charter counties to protect their own waters and thereby their own health, safety and welfare," Chuck O'Neal, president of Speak Up Wekiva, said in a prepared statement.

Several environmental groups had pushed for DeSantis to veto the bill, supporting stronger measures during the 2020 legislative session.

The act, in part, will move regulation of the 2.6 million septic tanks in the state from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection; require utilities to develop inspection, maintenance and replacement plans for their wastewater systems; and require the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to perform on-site verification of agricultural “best management practices” every two years.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said Tuesday the “comprehensive legislation” is the product of groups such as agriculture, utilities and homeowners working together.

“Don't point a finger, but ask people to come together and to do more now for Florida's environment,” Valenstein said. “Again, a simple concept, but it simply had not been tried. And it certainly worked out.”