Democrats questioned a House water policy bill on the floor Wednesday while environmentalists said they are turning their hopes to the Senate for a stronger bill.
Supporters say HB 7003 provides a statewide approach to dealing with water issues while modernizing the water regulatory system. But environmentalists say it weakens Lake Okeechobee protections while failing to set deadlines for cleaning up springs and restoring flows.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, was questioned for 45 minutes about HB 7003. The bill could be voted out of the House on Thursday.
Caldwell said he doesn’t think there is hardened opposition to the bill — just critics who want more.
“What you see here is a product that meets the expectations of the most stakeholders,” he said. “I think it is a good product.”
But Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said the best hope for strengthening the bill may lie with the Senate.
Democrats spent 45 minutes questioning Caldwell on the bill. But Pafford said Democrat’s opinions on the bill vary and there won’t be a party-line vote.
The bill passed its two committee stops with support from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and from groups including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.
Pafford said the bill didn’t get enough committee stops to discuss issues such as the reliance on agricultural best management practices by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services rather than regulatory enforcement by DEP.
“There are so many discussions that didn’t occur and there is so much to do,” Pafford said. “There is so much to do. And two days into the session and this is what we have.”
He continued, “Are we missing a great opportunity? I think we are.”
Environmental groups say the bill delays Lake Okeechobee cleanup by deleting a 2015 deadline and setting aside a rule that allows agencies to meet water quality standards. They say the bill relies too heavily on agricultural best management practices monitored by the agriculture department.
“Our goal for today,” Audubon’s Draper said, “was just to try to get enough debate on the bill so the Senate actually says, ‘Wait a minute — this is not just a kumbaya bill. We need to be the mature body and seriously look at this.’”
A House spokesman had indicated Tuesday that the bill would get a vote on Wednesday but there apparently was a miscommunication and that vote didn’t occur.
While House Democrats were asking questions, the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation spent nearly two hours on a section-by-section discussion of SB 918, the Senate water bill. The committee didn’t take public comment because it ran out of time.
Earlier in the day, Florida Department of Environmental Protection General Counsel Craig Varn disputed a Tampa Bay Times article from last week that the House bill shifts enforcement power from DEP to the state agriculture department.
“I think that was simply inaccurate,” Varn told the Florida Chamber Days gathering at Florida State University during a panel on water issues.
Caldwell told the gathering that the legislation provides DEP and the water management districts with a formal role in overseeing agricultural best management practices.
And he said the bill formalizes the Central Florida Water Initiative to help the region meet its future water needs.
“They are going to add another million people within the immediate horizon,” Caldwell said. “We don’t have the water supply right now to meet those needs.”
Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.