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Published Apr. 8, 2014

The Florida Senate is closing out an election-year session with a historic package to restore the state's natural springs. The House is moving in the opposite direction, readying an anti-environmental bill that is bad for the ecosystem, bad for taxpayers, bad for local control and bad for anyone interested in the security of the state's drinking water supply. This is a moment for lawmakers to choose sides and for voters to watch.

The Senate's legislation, SB 1576, would start the long job of reversing decades of degradation to Florida's springs. These once crystal-clear waters - now choked with runoff from septic tanks, wastewater plants, storm drains, farm and lawn fertilizer and other pollutants - are vital to the state's economy, tax base and the health of its drinking water supply. A bipartisan bill pushed by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, would provide nearly $371 million a year for a range of cleanup projects, from removing leaky septic tanks to limiting the spread of fertilizer and restoring the springs' natural flow.

The bill's impact, though, reaches further. It creates a new sense of urgency for restoration efforts and lays the groundwork for improving public health in rural and urban areas alike. The state would create protection zones for springs and plans to preserve them. Polluters would have a harder time dumping their waste directly into public waterways. The state would have to establish minimum flows for critical springs; counties would have to work together to protect entire watersheds; and officials could not use ongoing research as an excuse to avoid proceeding with attainable restoration efforts.

The House has opted instead to push a measure that's toxic even by the low standards of its sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. His bill would give landowners the right to pump from public water sources for 50 years, up from the current 20 years. Counties would be barred from adopting more protective rules for wetlands than the state, and locally elected officials would be prohibited from requiring a supermajority vote to approve new, large-scale development. Patronis' bill makes it easier for developers to game the system by getting agricultural tax breaks for speculative land investments. And it weakens the oversight of wells and well contractors while creating flimsy new standards for environmental mitigation banks.

The Senate has stripped away some of the worst provisions of HB 703, but the House seems prepared to force a trade off. It makes no sense to spend millions in tax dollars to restore Florida's springs while at the same time opening a back door to polluters to sabotage the very effort. Is this the legacy outgoing House Speaker Will Weatherford wants to leave?

The Senate bill is an overdue starting point in resurrecting a treasured natural and economic resource, just as the Patronis bill is an example of everything that's gone wrong with Tallahassee. The Senate should continue to push its springs bill and call out the House measure as a sellout to polluters. The two chambers could not have more contrasting visions for the environment. With their votes, lawmakers will show whether they stand with public health, clean water, property values and the people back home or with the monied special interests.