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Long-awaited water policy bill passes House committee

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A House budget panel on agriculture and the environment passed an expansive water policy bill by Rep. Matt Caldwell Wednesday afternoon.

The House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Committee approved HB 7005 by a vote of 11 to 1, with Democratic Rep. José Javier Rodríguez opposing.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has signaled its approval for the bill, as did a number of business-backed groups such as Associated Industries of Florida and Florida Chamber of Commerce, while some environmentalists stay on the fence.

Stephanie Kunkel, a lobbyist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, told the panel her group was grateful for steps the bill’s sponsor had taken since the bill appeared before the Legislature this spring.

Kunkel specifically mentioned greater verification and enforcement of best management practices, known as “BMAPs” in legislative jargon.

However, Kunkel also cited lingering concerns about water conservation incentives and new, sometimes permanent, extensions for certain water-use permits, especially on areas near bodies of water with maximum nutrient levels. She also cited a general lack of vigor from the Department of Environmental Protection when it comes to oversight.

Kunkel representative also told the panel that the organization would like to see the development of nitrogen targets for Lake Okeechobee, which has been beset by problems stemming from agricultural runoff that in turn affect ecologically sensitive bodies downstream, such as the ailing Caloosahatchee River.

David Cullen spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club to express appreciation for a “very good amendment” dealing with minimum nutrient levels. However, he too criticized the bill as getting only “halfway there” to a good water policy bill.

Cullen called for more-concrete deadlines for permit holders and seekers, prohibitions against releasing nutrients around springs, and called definitional language governing springs policy “deficient.”

The Nature Conservancy testified in support, highlighting the sections of the bill that create protection for Florida’s springs and that require projects that produce water for nature and people be planned for concurrently.

Rep. Ray Pilon agreed the bill was not perfect, but called the measure “a solid foundation” for water policy going forward.

Similarly, Rep. Debbie Mayfield expressed a wish to change the Legislature’s structure for founding water projects. Mayfield wants projects to be funded more like road projects, where appropriations are granted on a five-year basis and not one year at a time.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli‘s first year at the helm, 2015, was supposed to be the “Year of Water” after  voters passed a constitutional amendment to create a permanent dedicated source of money to pay for water protection efforts.

No bill emerged from this year’s regular Session when a similar bill by Caldwell and the State Affairs Committee became one of many casualties when the House adjourned three days before the scheduled end the Session.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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