Water will become a top issue in 2015 with the help of Amendment 1

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OK, 2015 actually could be the “year of water” in the Florida Legislature.

Certain Capitol pundits earlier this year predicted that water would be a top issue during the 2014 session. But they were wrong because there wasn’t support in both chambers for dealing with the issue.

The Senate passed a springs bill that would have provided limited funding for projects to reduce groundwater pollution. But House leaders always had expressed reluctance because the Senate bill was still evolving and they instead wanted a broader approach to water.

The difference this year, according to House and Senate leaders, is that voter approval of Amendment 1 will drive a focus on water issues. Approved by 75 percent of voters, Amendment 1 is expected to provide more than $10 billion over the next 20 years for land and water conservation.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said soon after taking the gavel during Tuesday’s organizational session that water will be a policy and funding priority as the Legislature implements Amendment 1.

“A clean, abundant water source for the future is important and we need to focus on that,” he told reporters.

New Senate President Andy Gardiner told reporters that Amendment 1 is going to drive a lot of the debate about water legislation.

During the organizational session, Gardiner told senators that the challenge of Amendment 1 is not spending more on the environment. Instead, he said, the challenge is spending less on transportation, affordable housing and economic development because tax revenues are being diverted.

“There is going to be some pain — there is no doubt about that,” Gardiner said. “There is no question implementing this amendment will be a challenge.”

He told reporters that Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also will be a part of the dialogue about water legislation.

“Everybody is going to come in with a water policy,” he said. “Our job as the Legislature is to kind of go through them and make sure we do what is right.”

But it’s still not at all clear what are the water problems that will be discussed or how the Legislature can address them.

I’ve been covering springs issues for more than 20 years and I know there are a variety of threats to springs — pollution and over-pumping, for example — and they vary with each spring. I don’t expect the Legislature to throw out water quality standards that the state, with support from industries and water utilities, adopted through an agreement with the federal government in 2013.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said the Legislature will need to identify and prioritize issues that it faces with water quantity and quality for surface water bodies, such as lakes and rivers, as well as aquifers that feed springs.

“If we can stop the point source of contamination, then we’re going to be able to let the bodies heal themselves,” Hays said. “There’s no point in us pouring millions or hundreds of millions of dollars into cleaning up large water bodies when we’re continuing to contaminate them.”

But he also said he doesn’t see a need for new regulations to deal with those issues.

Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach and House Democratic leader, said he hopes there aren’t any policy differences with Republicans on water issues. But he added that he doesn’t know because those issues haven’t been discussed.

With 75 percent voter support, Amendment 1 is “a good litmus test perhaps for everything we’re moving forward doing in the next two years.” he said.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.