Legislators dilute proposal to inspect Florida’s farms, septic tanks

Environmentalists say Florida faces a water quality crisis. But lawmakers are watering down rules to tackle fertilizer runoff.
Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River in 2019, when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms.
Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River in 2019, when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The releases spawned massive blue-green algae blooms. [ Palm Beach Post (2016) ]
Published Jan. 23, 2020

TALLAHASSEE ⁠— A day after the state’s top forecaster announced that demand for fresh water in Florida will exceed supply in five years and Everglades restoration is years behind schedule, a Senate committee watered down a bill aimed at giving the state more tools to regulate agricultural runoff and septic tanks.

The bill, SB 712 by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, puts into law some of the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task force, a panel of five scientists appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to propose policies for combating the algal outbreaks that closed beaches and sapped tourism.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, septic tanks, and sewer system seeps into Lake Okeechobee, and when the lake is too high, water managers have had to release water into estuaries on the east and west coasts. For several summers, that has spawned guacamole-like slime on the coastlines and noxious orders that closed beaches.

Related: Toxic algae bloom crisis hits Florida, drives away tourists (w/video)

The governor’s task force recommended the state conduct more rigorous monitoring and testing of the fertilizer runoff into Lake Okeechobee, more storage of the polluted water before it is released into the lake from the north and tighter control of the septic systems that leak harmful nutrients into the ground.

But on Wednesday, when Mayfield’s bill came before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government, she proposed an amendment that removed a requirement that each agriculture producer enroll in a program to reduce water and fertilizer, turn over their fertilizer records and face inspection every year.

Her amendment would allow farmers enrolled in the best management practices programs to turn over their records every two years instead.

“It’s an incentive to get people to do it one time,’’ Mayfield said.

Environmentalists react

The committee unanimously approved the amendment, and the bill. But environmentalists, who watched as lawmakers did nothing last year to crack down on the pollution that feeds the algae blooms, were not happy.

“The state is experiencing a serious water quality crisis,’’ said Anna Upton, lobbyist for the Everglades Foundation, which has urged lawmakers to toughen their monitoring of fertilizer use for years.

She said the bill is a “significant improvement from the status quo” but “when it comes to agricultural pollution this amendment, it goes backwards from the bill as it exists now. Our preference would be to have the original bill language that is in the bill.”

Sen. Ben Albritton, a Bartow Republican and fourth-generation farmer, called Upton’s comments “disingenuous.” He said the amendment’s requirement that farms be inspected every two years and farmers turn over their fertilizer records then “is a big deal; a major step forward.’’

But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriquez, D-Miami, said he agreed that the bill is only a start. “When it comes to nutrient pollution a lot of us are ready to go father,’’ he said.

Water shortage

The extent of the state’s water quality crisis came into focus Wednesday, when Amy Baker, director of the Legislature’s Economic and Demographic Research office presented her annual assessment of Florida’s water resources to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Baker warned that by 2025, “we expect that the forecast of water demand will exceed the water available — an inferred water supply problem.” To achieve the state’s water quality restoration goals, the state would need “a significant acceleration” of the projects and investment currently underway.

The Department of Environmental Protection’s Basin Management Action Plans are supposed to protect 15 of the state’s sensitive springs from dangerous runoff and repair other impaired waterways.

But Baker said if the state is to have the clean water needed in the future, instead of the 25 water protection projects underway in the last year, the state would need to implement 156 projects in the next five years and 115 projects in the five years after that.

Baker also delivered some bad news about Everglades restoration. At the current rate, Florida spends an average of $218 million a year and it would take “78 more years” to reach the 30-year goal of restoration, she said.

To get there in 30 years, as promised, the state would have to start spending $850 million a year in restoration projects, Baker said.

Septic tanks

The governor’s task force on blue-green algae also urged the Legislature to address the water quality problems caused by the 2.3 million septic tanks in Florida, relied on by 30% of the state’s population. It urged lawmakers to restore a law repealed in 2012 that required the inspection of septic systems and banned sewer plants from dumping sewage into waterways without first providing advanced waste treatment to remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus.

Mayfield’s bill transfers oversight and regulation of septic tank permitting from the Florida Department of Health to DEP and includes the ban on untreated sewage discharge. But it does not restore the requirement that septic systems be inspected.

“For the last eight years we have done nothing,’’ Mayfield told the committee. “This is a huge step in making sure that we have water quality.”

Related: Leaky septic tanks fuel algae blooms. Rick Scott OK'd repeal of law aimed to prevent that

Mayfield said her primary focus is to get communities to convert from septic systems to sewer. Her bill would allow DEP to set up a 50% matching grant program to encourage local governments to convert sewage connections from septic tanks to sewer systems and enact other wastewater improvements.

Mayfield said she was not aware that the recommendation from the task force to resume inspections had not been included in her bill but acknowledged it is an issue that is politically unpopular because it often increases costs for homeowners.

“I don’t want to kill the bill because we put septic tank inspection in, but we’ll get back to it,’’ she said.

Noah Valenstein, secretary of DEP, said the top priority of his agency is to discourage the expansion of septic tanks in Florida and encourage incentives to build sewer systems.

Septic tanks seep nutrients into waterways and ground water supplies, “causing more water quality violations even when they’re functioning perfectly,’’ he said.

“We’re trying to take septic tanks offline and fix the issue,’’ Valenstein said. “As a department, the single most important step that we could take is to just quit digging the holes.”

The legislation also directs DEP to develop updated storm water rules, and new rules for managing the application of biosolids, such as human waste that is used as fertilizer.

He also said he could live with Mayfield’s amendment to inspect farms and receive fertilizer records every two years because today regulators don’t get any verification that the programs are being followed.

State law requires the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to collect data from farms that enroll in the state’s best management practices program, but it has not been enforced.

“One of the exciting things we get to do is rebuild our monitoring network in Florida because we would like to have the most robust water quality monitoring network in the history of the state,’’ Valenstein said.

Related: Noxious blue-green algae blooms spotted in Gulfport and Treasure Island