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

Published Mar. 2, 2018

A pair of bills quietly moving through the Florida House and Senate have the potential to change the quality of the state's water supply.

The bills — HB 1149 and SB 1308 — encourage replenishing the fresh drinking water in the underground aquifer with treated sewage.

Clean Water Network of Florida director Linda Young calls the pair of bills, which are similar in language, "the Dirty Water Bill of 2018."

The legislation notes that by injecting the effluent, the state could continue approving new water-use permits for developers as new residents continue flooding into the state.

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, according to Mary Jane Angelo, director of the Environmental and Land Use Law Program at the University of Florida.

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, Angelo said.

Young joked that if the bills pass, the state could launch a new ad campaign to attract tourists: "Hey guys, did you leave home without your Viagra? Not a problem! We provide plenty in your drinking water in Florida!"

The House sponsor, Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, called Young's comments "ridiculous." Payne, a utility company executive, said he would have no concerns about drinking water treated to that level.

The bill is necessary, Payne contended, because "we must assure that we continue to have adequate potable drinking water using our best available technology."

Bob Palmer, who lobbies on behalf of the Florida Springs Council, is even more concerned about nutrients. Nutrients are Florida's biggest pollution headache. They come from sewage spills, septic tank runoff, animal waste and over-fertilized lawns, and they can cause toxic algae blooms.

Drinking water standards allow for far higher levels of nutrients than are considered healthy for the state's beleaguered springs, which Gov. Rick Scott has vowed to clean up, Palmer said. But he said state officials have embraced the bills because their attitude is, "Let's inject as much of this stuff into the aquifer as we can so we can keep issuing permits."

Cynthia Barnett, the author of three books on water and an environmental fellow in residence at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service, said the bills are based on a faulty assumption concerning how much water Florida needs for its future growth.

The bills say that Florida will need 7.7 billion gallons of water per day by 2030, or 1.3 billion gallons more than the state was using in 2010. That, Barnett said, "would only be true if we live wastefully with water and irrigate as profligately as we have in the past, and all signs are pointing in the opposite direction. The most important things we can do going forward are to use less and pollute less — not plan for using more and more."

During a January committee hearing on the Senate bill, Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen warned legislators that if the bills pass it could harm the aquifer, "and once the aquifer is contaminated, it's broken."

But in a video recording of the meeting, sponsor Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, who owns a roofing business, said that one of the purposes of injecting the effluent into the state's drinking water supply is "to improve water quality in the aquifer." He did not elaborate on what that meant.

To David Childs, a lobbyist for the state's sewage treatment utilities, the whole point is to augment the aquifer as it's being drained. Childs told the committee the bills would encourage using the effluent "for the benefit of the public" because it will guarantee new residents moving to Florida will continue getting water.

So far both bills have passed all their committee stops and are awaiting a floor vote.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees water permitting by the state's water management districts, has not taken a position for or against the bills, but is monitoring their progress, spokeswoman Lauren Engel said.

The bills also create a "Blue Star" program for sewer plants that allows them to get permits that last twice as long as regular five-year sewer plant permits. It then grants them a presumption that they are in compliance with state pollution regulations — even if they're under a state consent order to clean up a previous pollution spill. That might apply to St. Petersburg's troubled sewer system, which has repeatedly spilled treated sewage into the area's waterways.

The two bills differ from another pair of bills involving sewer effluent — SB 1710 and HB 1303 — that were requested by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Those bills sparked a flurry of opposition from Tampa Bay Water because they called for giving each city or county that is a part of regional authority "the absolute right" to use its highly treated reclaimed water as drinking water or to sell it to other members. Neither bill made it out of committee.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.