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Senate bill clears final committee stop despite concerns from counties, environmentalists

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A Senate water bill passed its final committee stop on Tuesday despite continuing concerns raised by counties and environmentalists.

SB 918 replaces a Lake Okeechobee pollution permitting program with more reliance on water cleanup plans, sets deadlines for establishing minimum flow levels for springs, sets timelines for springs cleanup plans and creates a statewide advisory council to recommend funding for water projects.

Sen. Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness who is bill sponsor, said SB 918 is close to matching the House version. HB 7003 passed the House 106-9 on March 5.

“I think we coordinated that in such a way we were able to move the bill (SB 918) forward,” Dean said. “We have not got a lot of pushback from them.”

SB 918 passed the Senate Committee on Appropriations and now is headed to the Senate floor.

The bill was amended to take out language giving priority for water projects recommended by state agencies over those requested by local governments.

“We are protecting the smaller cities,” said Sen. Alan Hays, a Republican from Umatilla who offered the amendment.

The bill also requires local governments with springs where septic tanks are contributing to pollution to establish a remediation plan. Local governments also must adopt state model fertilizer ordinances to protect springs.

Stephen M. James, representing the Florida Association of Counties, said his group has been concerned about the regulatory requirements and costs for counties in dealing with septic tanks.

“The bill has come a very long way,” he said. “We just have a couple of clarifications that would give us some comfort.”

Sen. Thad Altman and Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, raised concerns that the bill would prohibit local governments from adopting stronger fertilizer ordinances. Similar legislation has created battles in the Legislature in recent years.

But Altman, a Republican from Melbourne, later said he had been assured by Senate staff that the bill would not pre-empt local fertilizer ordinances.

Other senators questioned whether DEP had given over permitting authority for Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Greg Munson, a former DEP deputy secretary, said DEP and the agriculture department both maintain authority to trigger the use of agricultural best management practices.

“DEP under this fine bill retains its primary and ultimate water quality authority for Lake Okeechobee,” he said.

Munson said the coalition he now represents led by Associated Industries of Florida supports the bill although there are provisions that he said need “continued attention.”

Other groups supporting the bill include the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Janet Bowman, representing The Nature Conservancy, said the bill changes the focus on Lake Okeechobee pollution reduction from a permit-based system to a “load allocation” approach based on cleanup plans.

“I think it all comes back to the money,” she said. “If there is aggressive funding and aggressive implementation, that means more than the actual language of the bill.”

And Sierra Club Florida’s David Cullen said there still were concerns about the loss of a stricter standard for protecting springs flows. He also pointed to flaws in constructing deadlines for setting spring flows and said the group is not persuaded that cleanup plans can replace pollution permits for Lake Okeechobee.

“We think permits are particularly useful,” he said. “You can require people to meet the conditions of the permit, or they lose it.”

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

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