Environmentalists Criticize Fla. Chief Science Officer For Praising Clean Waterways Act

Feb 12, 2020

Environmental advocates from around Florida are calling on the state’s chief science officer to walk back his praise for a proposal making its way through the Legislature that’s aimed at improving water quality.

Since taking office in 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has prioritized water quality issues. One of the Republican governor’s first acts was to appoint the University of Florida’s Tom Frazer as the state’s first chief science officer.

Related: Florida’s 1st Chief Science Officer To Make Water Quality Issues A Priority

DeSantis and Frazer have both come out in support of Senate Bill 712, dubbed the Clean Waterways Act, introduced by Sen. Debbie Mayfield (R-Rockledge). It creates rules to reduce pollution that leaks into waterways from various sources. In an interview last week with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Frazer described the legislation as “one of the most environmentally progressive pieces of legislation that we’ve seen in over a decade.”

In response, the Florida Springs Council, Florida Waterkeepers, and the Sierra Club penned a joint letter asking Frazer to reconsider his words.

“As Florida’s first Chief Science Officer, it is essential that your statements to the public reflect the best understanding of environmental policy, especially when your credentials as a scientist are being used to bolster such remarks,” the letter reads. “Floridians must have faith that their Chief Science Officer is above politics and partisanship. Otherwise, we risk sacrificing the credibility of the important position with which you have been entrusted.”

The environmental advocacy groups aren’t worried just about the language Frazer used or what they perceive as potential partisanship. 

“When Chief Science Officer Fraser spoke in Sarasota last week, he revealed a very big disconnect that exists out there regarding what this bill would and would not do,” said Chris Costello from the Sierra Club.

The 12-page letter focuses on two main assertions:

  • SB 712 would not help achieve water quality goals in most of Florida’s impaired waters,
  • Within just the last year, several bills were more “environmentally progressive” than SB 712

“If you believe that this is going to make a difference in your quality of life and in the environment in Florida, you're sorely mistaken. And that's really what this is about. People are being led down a path to believe that something is actually going to happen, when in fact it's not,” Deborah Foote with the Sierra Club said in a call with news media on Wednesday. 

Still, the environmental groups behind the letter are not wholesale opposed to the bill.

“It is the policy equivalent of slapping a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It may not hurt, but it won’t really help,” the letter reads.

“It is critical that the Legislature adopts strong, enforceable, science-based policies that not only protect our waters from existing pollution sources, but protects our waters from rapid growth and climate change. And this bill currently, as written, does not,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “In 2019 the St. Johns River experienced more than 90 days of toxic blue green algae and this bill will not do anything to reverse that trend.”

Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, said one major issue he has with the bill is that it doesn’t address pollution from agriculture.

“The bill itself says that agriculture is the dominant source of pollution,” he said. “But for some reason, in Senate Bill 712 agriculture is the only major pollution source that does not require a remediation plan and does not require an enforceable ordinance.”

The groups write that if Florida doesn’t do anything to address agricultural pollution, the state could end up spending millions, perhaps even billions, of taxpayer dollars on water quality projects that won’t provide any significant benefit to water quality.

“You have to address agriculture to have any chance of achieving water quality goals,” Smart said. “It just doesn’t make any sense why you would say septic tanks need a plan, wastewater treatment plants need a plan, urban fertilizer needs an ordinance, but we're not going to do anything about agriculture.”

To address this concern, the letter proposes an amendment to SB 712 that targets agricultural pollution, along with several other recommendations.

A DEP spokesperson provided this response from CSO Frazer to WJCT News via email:

“I stand by my statement that SB 712 is one of the most progressive and comprehensive pieces of legislation that we have seen in over a decade. SB 712 addresses a broad suite of nutrient sources that affect Florida’s water quality -- including septic tanks, wastewater, agriculture, and stormwater. This legislation is a step forward on every front. 

For the first time ever, this bill requires: 

  • Regulation of septic tanks as a nutrient source and transfer of this program to DEP from DOH.
  • Wastewater facilities to have a power outage contingency plan to minimize impacts from power loss.  
  • All sanitary sewage disposal facilities to provide financial records to DEP to ensure all funds are being used appropriately for infrastructure upgrades, repairs and maintenance to guarantee that systems do not fall into states of disrepair. 
  • DACS to perform on-site inspections of agricultural operations at least every two years while also collecting fertilizer records to ensure compliance with Best Management Practices and to aid in the evaluation of BMP effectiveness. 
  • An update of stormwater rules and design criteria to achieve improved performance of stormwater systems statewide.”

The letter can be read in full here.

This story was updated on Feb. 13 with the response from CSO Tom Frazer.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.