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Water bills are on tap Wednesday but environmentalists are not cheering

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Supporters of clean water and conservation rallied two weeks ago at the Capitol but the biggest water day of the 2015 legislative session may come Wednesday.

HB 7003, the House water policy bill shepherded by state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, likely will pass the House.

And the Senate version, SB 918, will get its first committee vote. Earlier in the day, a Senate appropriations subcommittee will hear presentations from state agencies on the status of springs.

“I’m excited that water policy has cracked the top three issues in the session — is the defining feature of both presiding officers’ legacies,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told reporters on Tuesday. “I feel good about getting there by the end of session.”

Last year there was strong environmental support for a springs bill that passed the Seante. But the bill died in the House as state Rep. Steve Crisafulli, now the House speaker, said he wanted to take a more comprehensive approach on water issues.

Environmental groups this year are not supporting the House water bill and they say the Senate bill is not as strong as it was last year.

Springs across the state have turned green with algae growth fueled by nitrogen in groundwater from wastewater and fertilizer used in farms and on lawns. Overpumping from increased water use also threatens to reduce flows, environmentalists say.

HB 7003 requires the state to assess water quality in springs by Dec. 1, 2018. Water management districts would be required to adopt recovery strategies at the same time “minimum flows” are set to prevent overpumping.

The House bill lacks deadlines to set water pumping limits or establish cleanup targets for springs, said Ryan Smart, president of 1000 Friends of Florida.

The Senate bill is better but has longer deadlines than last year’s bill to prevent over-pumping and clean up springs, he said.

“We can’t continue to pollute the springs and hope they get cleaned up,” Smart said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Bob Palmer, chairman of the new Florida Springs Council’s legislative committee, said both bills rely heavily on the existing regulatory tools.

“The problem we have is those tools haven’t been effective,” Palmer said. “I don’t think speeding them up will make them any more effective. They just haven’t worked very well.”

Putnam said he thinks both bills have their good qualities.

While the House bill deals with broader water issues, including Lake Okeechobee and the Central Florida Water Initiative, the Senate bill focuses more on springs, which Putnam said are critical to the economic development and quality of life.

“I think sometime in the next 59 days or so you’ll see those two bills come together in a way that will get across the finish line,” Putnam said.

Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said the House will have to work on finding common ground with the Senate on the issue — and he said it won’t be solved in one year.

“They have a lot of their own ideas over there,” he said. “We will have to work through the complexities of the bill.”

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

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