Industry, environmental groups say rewritten Senate water bill is better but issues linger

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A Senate comprehensive water bill was rewritten on Wednesday with changes requested from business and environmental groups but neither side is supporting the bill yet.

SB 918 would establish springs protection zones, provide consistency in pollution regulations dealing with Lake Okeechobee and incorporate Central Florida water supply planning in state law. The bill passed its second of three committee stops on Wednesday

The bill was rewritten to place more responsibility on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and water management districts for identifying and funding wastewater improvements to help clean up groundwater flowing to springs.

Industry groups previously said the bill created additional layers of regulations and failed to address the need for water supply planning and consistency in regulations.

“I think we like the direction it has gone in,” said Greg Munson, an attorney who represents a water coalition led by Associated Industries of Florida. “There are probably a couple of other issues here or there but nothing nearly” as significant.

The bill also was rewritten to place deadlines for achieving water quality standards for water flowing into Lake Okeechobee and then released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Audubon Florida’s Eric Draper praised state Sen. Charlie Dean, bill sponsor and a Republican from Inverness, for his amendment setting a 20-year deadline for reducing pollution in water flowing to Lake Okeechobee, even though Draper later told reporters the deadline was not as strict as his group sought.

Draper said the Senate bill was improved from two weeks ago and is better than the House bill, but his group still isn’t supporting SB 918.

“This bill does nothing to accelerate or reduce the amount of pollution going into Lake Okeechobee or the coastal estuaries,” he said. “This bill simply adopts the state’s plan for dealing with phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries. There is a huge unaddressed pollution problem in South Florida that is not addressed by this bill.”

Sierra Club Florida’s David Cullen raised several concerns, including bill language that seeks to avoid future competition among water users.

“Population is increasing and eventually the sustainability of the (water) resource is going to be exceeded,” Cullen said. “We think you should include recognition of that fact within this bill and provide for development of a scientifically based water budget.”

A late-filed amendment offered by state Sen. Thad Altman, a Republican from Melbourne, was rejected Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government. The amendment, supported by the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, would have protected large water users who conserve water from having their permitted water use reduced.

Altman said the measure was in the bill as rewritten on March 24 by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation but left out of the delete-everything amendment proposed on Wednesday.

Frank Matthews, representing Florida Farm, said the new bill language failed to protect landowners in about 75 percent of the state where regional water supply plans have been adopted.

“That’s the only intention here — that all of the state get the benefits of water conservation,” Matthews said.

Dean said the issue was addressed in a section of the rewritten bill that provides emergency powers to restrict water use during drought.

The bill passed the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government without opposing votes and next goes to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. HB 7003 passed the House 106-9 on March 5.

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

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.