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Senate water bill clears committee with environmentalists and industry groups concerned

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Counties, agriculture, industry groups and environmentalists all were raising concerns Tuesday as a Senate committee passed its first version of a water bill.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner have said passing water legislation is a top priority in the 2015 legislative session. The House bill, opposed by environmentalists, passed the chamber 106-9 on March 5.

The Senate bill, SB 918, was amended Tuesday to include portions of the House bill, HB 7003, recognizing in state law the Central Florida Water Initiative and revising the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Protection Program.

Industry groups raised concerns about springs protection measures in the Senate bill. Environmental groups were concerned that Lake Okeechobee pollution permitting program was being replaced by “basin action management plans” that they said lack definite goals and enforcement.

“An otherwise good bill was made not so good by the addition of the Lake Okeechobee language,” Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said after a meeting of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.

Associated Industries of Florida and Florida Farm Bureau are among the groups in a coalition pushing for the Senate to adopt what they say is a more comprehensive bill similar to what the House has adopted. Those groups thanked the committee for taking a step in that direction but raised concerns about bill language requiring pollution reduction within designated “springs protection zones.”

The Senate bill also would change the standard of protection for springs from overpumping of groundwater to avoid “harm” rather than the less protective “significant harm” that now is in state law.

Greg Munson, a lawyer and former Florida Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary who represents the Associated Industries of Florida’s H2O Water Coalition, said many water districts were getting close to setting those minimum flows and setting a new standard would undo that.

“I think there is some debate about the underlying condition of the springs,” Munson said.

Representatives of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, the Florida Stormwater Association, the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association and the Florida Association of Counties also raised concerns with the springs protection measures.

Bob Palmer, representing about 20 springs groups organized as the Florida Springs Council, said the council supports the Senate bill and that the House bill relies on existing state programs that haven’t worked.

“Hang tough … when you get into negotiations with the House,” Palmer said. “They are going to say they are protecting springs. I really don’t think there is a thing in that bill that does that.”

Anna Upton, outside general counsel with the Everglades Foundation, said the “basin management action plans” that the Senate bill now relies on to protect Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries will not ensure water quality goals are met as shown by a University of Florida study conducted earlier this month for the Senate.

“If the state is serious about a comprehensive plan to address water it is time to start getting serious about controlling pollution,” Upton said. “Unfortunately this amendment takes a step backwards in that regard.”

State Sen. Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness who is sponsor of the Senate water bill, reminded Upton that the bill still has two more committee stops.

“There is no perfection in this bill or anybody else’s bill,” Dean said.

“We will consider anything,” he continued, “that is doable and desirable and manageable and is open and transparent that we can do.”

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

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