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Florida environment groups, businesses urge DeSantis to veto ‘attack’ on fertilizer bans

A DeSantis veto would save important measures to curb urban pollution, the groups urged.
 
Dead fish lay at the high tide line on Clearwater Beach in March  during a recent red tide in Pinellas County. Critics of a proposed fertilizer ordinance study, who are urging a veto from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, say it would set back Florida's progress on water quality initiatives.
Dead fish lay at the high tide line on Clearwater Beach in March during a recent red tide in Pinellas County. Critics of a proposed fertilizer ordinance study, who are urging a veto from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, say it would set back Florida's progress on water quality initiatives. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 15, 2023|Updated May 15, 2023

Dozens of Florida businesses and environmental organizations are calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a budget item that could curtail local fertilizer ordinances and stymie future water quality efforts.

A coalition of 55 groups from across the Sunshine State, including Alachua County commissioners, wrote a letter to DeSantis late last week urging he use a line-item veto to slash a proposed $250,000 appropriation for University of Florida researchers to study the impact of preempting local fertilizer regulations for the next year.

A local fertilizer ordinance — like the one Pinellas County initiates from June through September — aims to prevent polluted, nutrient-heavy water from flowing off lawns and parks during Florida’s rainy season. That runoff can fuel toxic blue-green algae and red tide blooms that plague Florida’s cherished coastlines and cost the state millions in missed tourism dollars.

More than 100 municipalities across Florida, including more than 20 local governments in Pinellas, have used rainy season fertilizer bans as a tool to prevent souring the state’s waters.

If the measure approved as is, UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences would have until the end of the year to “evaluate the effectiveness of the timing of seasonal fertilizer restrictions” and submit its findings to state lawmakers.

Critics of the proposed language, which was introduced in the final days of the legislative session with no public hearings, say the “sneak attack” is a waste of taxpayer dollars to study what the science already makes clear: Curbing fertilizer use during the wet season is an effective tool to reduce urban stormwater pollution.

Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Water quality advocates are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a controversial budget item that could hinder progress on environmental efforts.
Algae laps along the shoreline of the St. Lucie River when heavy rains forced the release of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Water quality advocates are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a controversial budget item that could hinder progress on environmental efforts. [ Palm Beach Post (2016) ]

Because lawmakers used the budget as a vehicle to make the policy change, the prohibition on fertilizer bans doesn’t begin until the budget takes effect on July 1 and expires when the fiscal year budget ends on June 30, 2024. Some local governments will not have their policies affected — but if the provision stands, it will make it impossible for local governments to extend or modify existing bans unless those policies are in place before July 1.

“Your veto will save the popular, non-partisan urban pollution control measures that have been adopted across the state over the last 16 years,” wrote the groups, which include names like the Florida Springs Council, the Save the Manatee Club and Florida Conservation Voters.

“Failure to veto this line will tie the hands of local governments from protecting their own waterfront economies by prohibiting new effective urban fertilizer ordinances,” they wrote. Several businesses advocating for clean water, including a Bonita Springs-based water sports rental company and St. Pete Beach’s Grove Surf & Coffee, also signed on to the letter.

If it isn’t vetoed, the measure would not likely have a significant effect on the Tampa Bay watershed, as most of the region’s local governments have already adopted fertilizer ordinances with seasonal bans. They would be “grandfathered in,” as the current language does not roll back existing local controls, according to Maya Burke, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s assistant director. Those with existing bans wouldn’t be able to modify them, however.

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The first county to adopt a fertilizer ordinance with a seasonal ban was Sarasota County in 2007. St. Petersburg followed two years later, in 2009. The next year, in 2010, the Pinellas County ordinance was adopted, Burke said.

In a written statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Michael Dukes, director of the UF Institute’s Center for Land Use Efficiency, said the department anticipates “this effort will point to further needed studies to determine the relationship between nutrient losses and the use of fertilizer in urban areas.”

The existing studies on the effects of fertilizer running off landscapes during the rainy season, or otherwise, “are lacking,” Dukes said Monday afternoon. He cited a turfgrass study funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection where runoff wasn’t measured.

But environmentalists who signed on to the veto request letter, including Cris Costello, a senior organizing manager at the Sierra Club, claim UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences research is swayed to protect the turfgrass and agrichemical industries. Costello doesn’t take issue with more research about fertilizer ordinances. She takes issue with the institute as the entity doing that research, she said.

“They’re funded by folks who care about turf quality rather than water quality,” Costello said Monday.

Dead fish from a red tide bloom wash up at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Thursday, Dec. 8 in St. Pete Beach.
Dead fish from a red tide bloom wash up at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Thursday, Dec. 8 in St. Pete Beach. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

According to reporting by the Florida Phoenix, the TruGreen lawn care company hired former Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli to lobby for the proposed study.

In 2014, the Times reported Crisafulli was among several Florida lawmakers to take a secret hunting trip to King Ranch in Texas, orchestrated by and at least partially paid for by U.S. Sugar.

A spokesperson for DeSantis didn’t indicate whether the governor intends to use a line-item veto on the measure.

“The governor will spend the coming days reviewing the budget in its entirety, and he will decide on the merits of each line item during his review,” spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said in an email.

If vetoed, it wouldn’t be the first time DeSantis stepped in at the buzzer to put an end to controversial environmental measures.

Last year, after enormous outcry from clean-water organizations, DeSantis vetoed Senate Bill 2508, which environmentalists feared would have turned back the clock on years of water quality improvements and restoration efforts.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.