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House water bill passes as critics hope for better Senate legislation

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House Republican leaders praised a water policy bill that they passed on Thursday as a good start while the chamber’s Democratic leader called it bad legislation and joined environmentalists in hoping for better legislation from the Senate.

HB 7003 passed the House 106-9 on the third day of the legislative session after about 45 minutes of debate. Nearly 30 Democrats joined House Republicans in voting for the legislation.

“This is a good bill,” state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said during debate. “What bill doesn’t come before us that we can’t say I’d like it to be better for X, Y, Z reasons?”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli says HB 7003 is a comprehensive policy that modernizes the state’s regulatory approach to water. But critics say the bill weakens Lake Okeechobee protections and delays setting or achieving goals for cleaning up springs and preventing over-pumping.

The bill recognizes the Central Florida Water Initiative in state law while eliminating a South Florida Water Management District farm permitting program for Lake Okeechobee in favor of agricultural “best management practices.” It requires the setting of minimum flows for springs simultaneously with setting recovery goals, a move that some Democrats and environmentalists say could delay cleanup.

And the bill requires the Department of Environmental Protection to complete a water quality assessment of designated springs by Dec. 1, 2018. Environmentalists say they favor a Senate bill because it goes further in setting deadlines and doesn’t contain the Lake Okeechobee language.

“It’s not that it’s a bill that just doesn’t have enough,” state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said after the vote. “There are some serious portions of the bill that I think will lend themselves towards dirtier water going into Lake Okeechobee.”

But Pafford, the House Democratic leader, also said he looked forward to joining Caldwell in support of the bill when it returns from the Senate.

The bill passed committees with support from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and groups including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

Eric Draper of Audubon Florida said after the vote that the bill was clearly going to pass. But he added that the 45-minute debate helped show there are problems that need to be addressed by the Senate.

“I like the Senate bill because it doesn’t have the Lake Okeechobee changes in it,” Draper said. “It also doesn’t have some water policy changes in this bill that also are a problem.”

The Senate’s water bill, SB 918, received a two-hour workshop hearing on Wednesday while the House members were questioning their bill on the floor.

During the debate Thursday, some Democrats criticized HB 7003 for not containing an appropriation or an accompanying cost estimate. Caldwell said the estimate will be worked on during the session.

“We’re certainly going to have to work with our Senate partners,” Caldwell said. “If you look broadly at their proposals, they are very project-oriented — they have specific things they want to pursue whereas ours is a broad policy framework.

“So they are not necessarily in conflict,” he said. “They can be potentially complimentary.”

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

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