Water Policy Flows Easily From House

Credit Ines Hegedus-Garcia / Flickr

A plan that would make changes to the management of the state's natural springs and address drinking-water issues across Central Florida and the flow of pollution in and out of Lake Okeechobee was approved Thursday by the House on the third day of the legislative session.

The proposal (HB 7003), which has backing from the state's agriculture industry and influential business groups, must still get through the Senate, whose members have their own ideas about changing the state's water policies to meet the demands of a newly approved constitutional amendment about land and water conservation.

Environmentalists and a number of Democrats are pinning their hopes on the Senate blocking many of the House's proposals.

The bill is a priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and was the first measure approved by the House after the session started Tuesday.

"This is a foundational place for us to begin on this bill," Crisafulli, whose family owns agricultural land, told reporters after the vote. "We're going to continue to communicate with our Senate partners on it. But at the end of the day, we're very comfortable where we are starting."

The chamber spent less than 40 minutes Thursday debating the bill before members voted 106-9 to approve it.

House State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican who has spearheaded the bill, acknowledged his proposal "is a broad policy framework" compared to the Senate's effort (SB 918), which is more project-focused.

"They're not necessarily in conflict, they can be potentially complementary," Caldwell said. "We're going to have to work through those issues just like you do on every big issue."

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam issued a release after the vote praising the House bill for offering "a comprehensive, long-term and flexible approach to protecting the supply and quality of our water now and in the future."

The House policy changes would impose what are known as "best management practices" for natural springs, the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. Also, water-management districts would be directed to implement a water-management plan across Central Florida.

Environmentalists contend that "best management practices" are simply guidelines that fail to mandate needed improvements.

The Senate version, which closely mirrors a proposal the chamber considered in 2014, is heavily focused on protecting the state's natural springs. It also would establish a method to prioritize various water projects and create a non-motorized trail network, which is backed by Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Unlike in the Senate approach, the House does not include springs-protection zones, which would regulate the impact of septic tanks and the flow of storm water and agricultural runoff into springs.

Opponents noted the House plan also doesn't address the declining status of the dike around Lake Okeechobee or the Panhandle's Apalachicola Bay, which continues to be enmeshed in a legal battle between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over upstream waters.

The House bill has backing from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

Associated Industries opposed a Senate proposal last year. Brewster Bevis, senior vice president of AIF, said the business group continues to have concerns that the Senate measure needs a more "comprehensive approach."

"I would encourage the Senate to broaden their bill, to include South Florida, to include the Central Florida water initiative and not just simply focus on the springs issues," Bevis said.

Meanwhile, Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said the House bill would reduce the power of the state's water management districts and shift oversight of many water issues from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is Putnam's agency.

"They have admitted that a different bill is likely to come back from the Senate," Draper said. "So it's our job to get over there in the Senate and improve the shortcomings of the House bill."

In debate, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the measure provides a "20-year outlook, proactively addressing springs challenges today." And Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, said the proposal provides an "approach based upon experience and science" to address pollution in state waters.

Yet in opposing the measure, House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said he'd prefer legislation that directs money from the constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 1, to conserve land and water and questioned the speed in which the bill was rushed to the floor.

"There is very little conservation in (HB) 7003, there's very little land discussion," Pafford said. "We're talking comprehensive water fixes, couldn't they have taken more time?"

Pafford, however, was in the minority among even his own party, with many Democrats saying they still had questions about the proposal but voted to support it.

Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, noted the bill doesn't include financial estimates and said in voting for the measure she hoped that "somewhere along the way we'll get to see that."

Photo credit: "crane" by Ines Hegedus-Garcia is used under CC BY 2.0.