Legislature funds Florida Forever but allows sewage into aquifer

Published March 13 2018

In their session’s waning hours, Florida legislators agreed to spend $100 million to revive the state’s popular environmental land-buying program. But legislators also cleared the way for issuing quicker permits to destroy wetlands and allowing more dumping of treated sewage in the state’s primary drinking water source.

"Florida has taken a very dark turn" with the passage of those two bills, said Linda Young of the Clean Water Network of Florida. She had dubbed the second one "the Dirty Water Bill of 2018."

RELATED: Florida Forever? More like Florida Never after Legislature spends zero dollars on land-buying program (may 4, 2017)

The $100.8 million that legislators approved for Florida Forever as part of the $88.7 billion budget that passed Sunday is "better than last year," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation, noting that last year’s total was zero. "But it’s far short of what we’re seeking through legal action."

Between 2009 and 2014, lawmakers slashed Florida Forever’s funding by more than 97 percent. So in 2014, frustrated environmental advocates mustered enough support to put a measure called Amendment 1 on the ballot. It passed with 75 percent of the vote.

Amendment 1 dedicated more than $700 million for conservation and preservation. Environmentalists had hoped that lawmakers would approve at least $300 million to buy conservation and preservation lands. They didn’t, prompting a coalition of environmental groups to file suit. The case is set for trial in July, Fuller said.

This year, though, Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, vowed to get at least $100 million for the program, and he succeeded. The group that picks out which properties deserve to be preserved, the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council, has a shopping list of 32 properties that range from panther habitat in South Florida to bat caves in the Panhandle.

Meanwhile, though, the Legislature approved a bill — HB 1149 — that would encourage pumping treated sewage into the state’s aquifer to offset increased withdrawals of fresh water. By injecting the effluent, the state could continue approving new water-use permits for developers as new residents continue flooding into the state.

RELATED: Bills to let treated sewage get pumped into aquifer close to approval by Legislature

The effluent, often referred to as "reclaimed water," is frequently used to water lawns instead of wasting valuable drinking water on grass. To inject it into the aquifer, though, would require cleaning the effluent to the point that it would meet federal drinking water standards.

However, those standards don’t require screening out antibiotics, antidepressants and other drugs that routinely wind up in the sewer system because they’re carried in human waste. Environmental groups warned legislators that putting those contaminants into the state’s aquifer would cause untold harm to those who drank it.

The House sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, a utility executive, has called environmental critics’ concerns about contamination of the aquifer "ridiculous", and said he’d be glad to drink the water after the effluent was pumped into it. He said the bill is necessary because "we must assure that we continue to have adequate potable drinking water using our best available technology."

A second bill that drew strong objections from environmental groups, HB 7043, also passed just before session’s end. It would allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to take over issuing federal wetlands destruction permits from the federal Army Corps of Engineers instead of making developers seek permits from two different agencies.

"Working with one agency will eliminate duplication," state Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, who sponsored the companion bill in the Senate, said during a committee hearing. "The DEP can make a permit decision more quickly."

RELATED: Gov. Rick Scott’s DEP wants to take over issuing federal wetland permits

Florida has more wetlands than any other state. While builders often see them as an impediment to their plans, wetlands are considered valuable because they absorb flood water, filter out pollution and provide habitat for important species of wildlife.

That’s why wetlands are supposed to be protected by the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972. Under that law, the corps is in charge of issuing permits that are supposed to limit the damage to wetlands, with the EPA given veto power should any bad permits get by.

Thus developers have to get permits for wetlands destruction from both their state environmental agency and the corps. In the 45 years since the Clean Water Act passed, only two states have taken over issuing the federal permits too: New Jersey and Michigan. All the rest have said no thanks — but now Florida hopes to joint their ranks in the name of speeding up getting the permits out.

DEP officials assured legislators they could take over issuing thousands of federal permits without increasing their budget or hiring more people. However, since Scott took office in 2011, the size of the DEP has shrunk by more than 600 employees, dropping from about 3,500 to 2,900. He slashed funding for the state’s water management districts, which also issue some wetland permits, and vetoed funding for the regional planning councils that helped guide growth.

RELATED: Under Scott, Department of Environmental Protection undergoes drastic change (Oct. 18, 2014)

In a 2014 speech, Scott praised the DEP for cutting the amount of time it takes to get any permit to a mere two days — down from 44 days when Jeb Bush was governor from 1999-2007.

"The corps has been the only possible speed bump for stopping wetlands destruction in Florida," Young said Monday. "Now that speed bump is gone, and the developers can go 80 mph and rip and tear as they please."

DEP supported the wetlands permitting bill, but Scott has not indicated whether he will sign either.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.