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House water bill language finds a new home as session winds down

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Language from a comprehensive House water bill was added on Thursday to other environmental legislation in the House over objections from Democrats.

But the water bill language lacks key components of the Senate bill that is important to that chamber’s leadership, raising questions about whether the move represents gamesmanship between the two chambers.

And some environmentalists say they’d prefer to see the bills die, effectively ending what some observers predicted would be the “year of water” in the Legislature.

HB 7003 replaces a Lake Okeechobee pollution permitting program with more reliance on water cleanup plans, sets deadlines for establishing minimum flow levels for springs and sets timelines for springs cleanup plans. The bill passed the House 106-9 in the first week of the session.

Through a series of amendments, the water bill language was added to HB 653, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection bill that had cleared its committee stops without opposing votes. State Rep. Cary Pigman, a Republican from Avon Park, is the bill sponsor.

The late-session tactic brought the House bill into alignment with the Senate bill, SB 918, said state Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers who is bill sponsor.

“You’ve been around the process long enough,” told Floridapolitics.com. “You know it’s good to have a couple of different vehicles (bills).”

State Rep. David Richardson, a Democrat from Miami Beach, raised a point of order, saying the amendments expanded the DEP bill beyond its original scope in violation of House rules. But his points of order were rejected by House leaders.

“The point of order was not about policy, it was about procedure,” Richardson told Floridapolitics.com. “We’re taking a 12-page bill and turning it into something over 100 pages.”

The Senate version, SB 918, also would establish the SunTrail bike trail network within the Florida Department of Transportation. And the bill, which passed its final committee stop on Tuesday, would establish statewide water advisory council to review water projects.

Senate leaders say the council would provide a process for vetting projects to make sure they are scientifically valid rather than politically popular.

State Sen. Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness, called the House maneuver a good first step.

“However, I hope to see continued conversation in regards to the Water Resource Advisory Council and SunTrail,” Dean said. “These two issues still remain important to me.”

Caldwell said there are transportation bills that can include the trail network language. And he said he’s not persuaded that the water council is needed.

“You always end up in these arguments,” Caldwell said. “Folks argue for nonpartisan councils or commissions to do all kinds of things.”

But he said those commissions often wind up being “just as political” as the legislative process.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Tuesday the bill would make “tremendous progress” in protecting springs. Industry and business groups also are backing the bill.

However, Lisa Rinaman of the St. Johns Riverkeeper group said the House and Senate water bill language “do more harm than good.” She said they prioritize unsustainable surface water withdrawals rather than water conservation.

And Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said, “I don’t think there is anyone in the conservation community that would be disappointed if this water bill didn’t pass.”

He said the lack of legislation this year would allow the House and Senate to hold hearings toward developing a bill next year that better addresses the state’s water needs.

Caldwell said he hasn’t heard that argument.

“I would just disagree with those who think we should abandon the work we’ve done this session,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good policy in both of those bills and now combined in the Pigman package (HB 653).”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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