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Florida's water was House Speaker Crisafulli's top priority; now it waits

Water was a priority for House Speaker Crisafulli.
Water was a priority for House Speaker Crisafulli.
Published May 19, 2015

Last year saw a rare alignment of political forces in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott, several powerful state senators, a coalition of environmental groups and a consortium of business and industry groups all said the Legislature needed to do something about fixing Florida's water.

They all agreed that the pollution is too pervasive, the flow too endangered and the perils too great to the state's future to ignore it any longer.

Members of the Senate pushed a solution, but the House, under departing Speaker Will Weatherford, blocked it. Wait a year, they said, because incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli wanted to rewrite the state's water policies, starting with the 2015 session.

But the 2015 regular session ended in chaos last month as Crisafulli adjourned the House three days early without passing a budget, the only duty the Legislature is required to carry out. A special session begins June 1 to get the budget done.

Will Crisafulli's top priority be part of that 20-day marathon? Late Friday the answer arrived: No, it will not. The budget, taxes and Medicaid will be the topics of conversation — not water.

Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

However, the sponsor of the water-policy bill that the House passed this year was not surprised there will be no further action on the issue before next year.

"No need to add more pressure to an already complicated budget session," Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, said.

The business community would have liked to have it brought back up, said Brewster Bevis of Associated Industries of Florida, "but passing a budget is obviously the No. 1 priority of the Legislature right now."

Environmental activist Linda Young had been hoping the special session wouldn't touch on water at all, based on what was in Caldwell's bill.

That bill "would radically change water policy in Florida in so many harmful ways that I can't even fathom all the repercussions," said Young, who runs the Clean Water Network.

As Crisafulli's top priority, House Bill 7003, the water policy rewrite sponsored by Caldwell, was the first bill to pass the House this year. It cleared the lower chamber in early March with a 106-9 vote — but that's as far as it went. The Senate had its own water bill that differed from the House version. Both fell victim to the early adjournment on April 28.

That was fine with Estus Whitfield of the Florida Conservation Coalition, which in 2012 delivered to Tallahassee a petition, signed by more than 15,000 people, demanding swift action in restoring the state's ailing springs — a petition that the Legislature has largely ignored.

"Best to leave water policy law alone if the Legislature is unable to substantially strengthen it," he said.

Caldwell's bill called for the state's water management districts overseeing Central Florida to implement uniform supply planning, water-use permits and water-quality protection programs. The bill also called for the state to conduct new water-quality assessments of the springs.

And, in its most controversial provision, it required farmers, ranchers and other potential polluters to employ "best management practices" to curtail pollution flowing into Lake Okeechobee and other waterways.

Environmental activists warned that requiring best management practices was not as effective as setting pollution limits through issuing permits. If someone with a permit fails to follow the rules, the state can impose fines or revoke the permit, they noted. State agencies have no comparable way to enforce those best management practices if pollution turns up.

Caldwell's bill was strongly backed not only by Crisafulli and the business community, but also by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. His agency would be in charge of dealing with the best management practices — thus taking some regulatory power away from Scott, who oversees the state Department of Environmental Protection and the water districts.

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