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Florida Clean Waterways Act: Calm Water Illusive

Photo of woman relaxing on dock on inland waterway
                                                                                                   Photo: Roberto Nickson

TALLAHASSEE, FL – A sweeping Clean Waterways Act, which incorporates many of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ water quality initiatives, will be introduced onto the Senate floor, perhaps next week.

The omnibus-like measure, Senate Bill 712, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, is among a bevy of 2020 water-quality-related bills matriculating through committees.

But SB 712 is the session’s flagship environmental measure, proposing a range of regulatory changes regarding septic-to-sewer conversion, wastewater, stormwater, agriculture and biosolids.

Highlights include:

• Septic systems: The bill transfers septic permitting from the state’s Department of Health (DOH) to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and requires Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to include septic remediation plans.
• Wastewater: The bill requires utilities to develop inspection, maintenance and replacement plans for wastewater systems; creates a 50/50 state and local grant program for upgrades; and doubles spill fines to $20,000.
• Stormwater: The bill requires the DEP and the state’s five water management districts (WMDs) to initiate a revision of stormwater rules by January 2021.
• Agriculture: The bill requires the Department of Agriculture to provide fertilization and nutrient records from producers to the DEP. The Department of Agriculture and state universities would develop agricultural best management practices and nutrient reduction projects.
• Biosolids: The bill requires the DEP to adopt rules for biosolids management and create a real-time water quality monitoring program.

SB 712 was approved Thursday in a 20-1 vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee, sending it to the Senate floor for adoption. If the stormy three-hour hearing that preceded the endorsement is an indication, the Clean Waterways Act’s path to adoption will be muddied by uncertainties and criticisms.

The Florida Springs Council, Florida Waterkeepers, the Sierra Club, local groups and individual residents expressed doubts about the measure’s efficacy, particularly the self-monitoring aspect its agricultural components.

“It still needs a lot more power, authority and teeth put into it,” Our Santa Fe River Director Jim Tatum said, stating BMAPs need strengthening and the agricultural industry needs “radical changes in the use of fertilizers.”

“This is not a battle of environmentalists versus polluters," he said. "It is a battle of survival for all of us.”

Sean McGlynn, of the Wakulla Springs Alliance, said as an environmental scientist, he’s studied Florida’s aquatic system ecology since the 1970s, which has “become quite depressing because I find myself studying its demise, its downfall.”

McGlynn called the bill “wonderful, but it needs to be stronger. BMAPs have failed the (state’s) springs. Agriculture needs to regulated” more extensively.

“We are supposed to be the ‘Saudi Arabia of water,’ ” he said. “The water is vanishing and (aquifers) are getting salty. Nothing will change until we can’t live here anymore.”

Terry Ryan, of the Tallahassee Sewage Advocacy Group, said 23,000 sewage spills have dumped at least 2 billion gallons into state waters the past decade.

Doubling penalties to $20,000 is “woefully under what it should be,” he said, claiming utilities pay it as “the cost of doing business” rather than invest in upgrades. “It should be at least four times that amount. It is no disincentive.”

Two late amendments also spurred objections certain to be heard on the Senate floor and in the House.

One requires unanimous Water Management District board approval for commercial consumptive-use permits, raising sharp challenges from water bottlers.

The other concentrates environmental policy under the governor, sparking an angry critique by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who said the “stealth” amendment was added after he would not hear a bill to effect the change in a committee he chairs.

“Shame on them,” Lee said. “I will vote against this amendment, vote against this bill and lobby against this bill as a matter of principle.”

This piece appeared in the The Center Square and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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