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Charlie Dean and Matt Caldwell: Criticism of new water law off-base

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

Both the Florida House and Senate are off to a great start in the 2016 Session, having passed significant legislation expanding job and education opportunities for people with disabilities and approving a historic water bill. Thanks to Gov. Rick Scott, both of those bills are now law.

The comprehensive water bill has been the subject of newspaper editorials around the state, and now that it’s the law, Floridians deserve to know the many benefits it will provide. During this policymaking season, editorials critiquing our work are par for the course. But viewpoints based on conjecture and not on fact are not helpful to the process.

Republicans and Democrats were nearly unanimous in supporting this priority for prominent members of Florida’s business and environmental communities. As with many bills, it had its share of critics. But the bill was improved with stronger protections for springs, more stringent water quality standards and significant improvements to Florida’s water governance structure. We believe the end result is the most ambitious and forward-thinking water reform Florida has seen in decades.

A common refrain from critics has been that the law fails to establish water conservation as a priority. In reality, the state is already bound by law to use water conservation as an essential part of the criteria used to issue water-use permits, along with other requirements designed to promote water conservation. The new law goes a step further and provides regulatory incentives for saving water during a permit’s time frame. It also creates a new and innovative nutrient and sediment reduction and conservation pilot project that will be implemented statewide.

Some have also criticized the law’s lack of deadlines for the adoption of critical regulatory tools such as total maximum daily loads and basin management action plans. But nowhere does the law weaken state water quality standards. Instead, the bill sets stronger deadlines requiring the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to initiate the development of basin action plans at the same time maximum loads are adopted for springs designated “Outstanding Florida Springs.” Claims that the law has delayed targets for achieving minimum flows and levels are simply not true. It actually establishes deadlines for setting minimum flow levels for priority springs that did not previously exist in Florida statute.

Other criticisms, such as claims that the policy fails to keep Floridians informed about how much water is being used per day, are also off base. The law requires monitoring of all new and renewed permits that withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per day from groundwater where the inside diameter of a well is 8 inches or greater. It also allows water management districts to adopt more stringent monitoring requirements.

When the policy was developed, we also heard that minimum flow and level standards should be set to “harm,” not “significant harm,” however, this suggestion shows a clear lack of understanding of the consumptive user permitting process. That process already has the necessary safeguards by requiring that the harm standard be met for individual permits.

Some have raised concerns about the law’s changes to our regulatory structure, but these concerns are unfounded. The law does not limit water management districts from denying permits, and does not change any authorization given to water management districts for the interbasin transfer of water — an authority that already exists statewide. If anything, the law strengthens oversight by requiring DEP to weigh in at the district level to determine if districts should re-initiate regional water supply planning.

Finally, some have said the bill does not go far enough on several fronts. In truth, our state was long overdue for these reforms. Another year without passing a comprehensive water bill would be another year without stronger springs protections and another year without the planning we need to address long-term water quantity and quality issues.

When you add up all the facts, the criticisms against the new law just don’t hold up. The challenges we face as a state were not going to be solved without action, and this Session we responsibly took the opportunity to put Florida on a path to preventing water crises before they happen.

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State Sen. Charlie Dean is a Republican from Inverness. State Rep. Matt Caldwell is a Republican from North Fort Myers. Both sponsored the water bill Scott recently signed into law.

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