Talla Talk: Scott Signs Water Bill

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    Gov. Rick Scott signed legislative leadership-backed bills last week that set statewide water policy. Scott signed the bills in his office, ignoring calls by a number of environmental groups and former Gov. Bob Graham to veto the water measure. “This is a great start to session,” Scott said while flanked by lawmakers including House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner. “We’ve started with things that are very important to the president, speaker and other members of the House and Senate. Everybody knows my priorities.”

    The business-backed water bill (SB 552), which environmentalists say they will seek to make stronger in the future, was approved in a 110-2 House vote on January 7th. That came a day after the Senate unanimously supported the bill, which lawmakers have been trying to advance for more than two years.

    “A comprehensive approach to water will result in our ability to protect our state’s most precious resource from crisis,” said House State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican and sponsor of the measure.

    The proposal, in part, calls for establishing water-flow levels for springs and setting guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative, which is a regional water-supply planning effort that involves the state Department of Environmental Protection, the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and regional water utilities.

    The bill also would further establish management plans for farming around Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee Estuary and inland portions of the Caloosahatchee River watershed, and the St. Lucie River and Estuary.

    The package also would require the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research to provide an annual assessment of the state’s water resources and conservation lands.

    “Next year we’re going to have a report outlining all the natural resources commitments that we have made as a policy in the state and what the means from an appropriations standpoint,” Caldwell said. “We’ve never really done that before.”

    The House action drew praise from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which released a statement calling the bill a “meaningful step in the right direction to help ensure Florida’s water future doesn’t go the way of California.”

    Putnam has said the package is just a step in Florida meeting future water needs, as demand is expected to grow by more than 1.3 billion gallons a day by 2030. One-third of the growth is expected in the Orlando region.

    Former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham added his name to the list of opponents asking Gov. Rick Scott to veto the water-policy bill. In a letter to Scott, Graham argued that the bill fails to reverse pollution and over-pumping of aquifers for Florida’s lakes, rivers, springs, estuaries and the Everglades.

    “Although there are good elements in this bill, they come at too high a cost: provisions blatantly favoring special interests, tying the hands of the water management districts by further weakening current water protections, and largely ignoring the two most important requirements to protect these resources: conservation and stopping pollution at its source,” Graham wrote. “Frankly stated, this bill leaves the people and businesses of Florida unprepared to meet the water challenges of the 21st century.”

    Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a lobbyist on environmental issues, said the bill won’t do anything if the provisions are not enforced and funded.

    “The next step is to make sure the agencies do what the bill said they’re going to do, and that is to create clean-up plans for the 39 outstanding Florida springs and to improve the clean-up plan for Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries,” Draper said.

    A number of Democrats said that while they would have liked to have seen more conservation measures in the bill, they considered the proposal “a foundation” upon which to improve upon in the future.

    “It gives us a floor, something that we can work from to make it better in future generations,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, “But we must start somewhere. And I think this bill is a good start.”

    House Minority Leader Rep. Mark Pafford and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, voted against the bill.

    “This bill, unfortunately, leans towards agriculture,” said Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat. “I don’t think it delivers as much as it should.”

    Rodriguez said he had questions over the long-term costs because “of what’s missing.”

    Pafford proposed four amendments that included a proposal from the Florida Springs Council to require water-management districts to estimate maximum sustainable groundwater withdrawals for each district. All four amendments failed in voice votes.

    “Florida is facing a statewide water supply problem,” Pafford said. “Water managers should have a clear idea as to how much water is actually being pumped, not only to ensure that large users are complying with their permits, but also to help water managers determine what levels of ground water withdrawals are sustainable.”

    Jim Turner

    The News Service of Florida