Florida Legislature poised to deal serious blow to local water quality efforts

A proposal to restrict fertilizer management ordinances was tucked into a budget proposal at the last minute.
It is the latest proposal to emerge in a legislative session that has fast-tracked industry-friendly bills aimed at removing local control and public input over emotionally-charged environmental and development issues.
It is the latest proposal to emerge in a legislative session that has fast-tracked industry-friendly bills aimed at removing local control and public input over emotionally-charged environmental and development issues. [ Times (2017) ]
Published May 2, 2023|Updated May 2, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators are poised to block one of the most effective tools local governments say they have to protect water quality in their communities in the face of red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks by banning rainy season restrictions on fertilizer use.

A measure quietly tucked into a budget proposal over the weekend would prohibit at least 117 local governments from “adopting or amending a fertilizer management ordinance” during the 2023-24 budget year, requiring them to rely on less restrictive regulations developed by the University of Florida, which are supported by the state’s phosphate industry, the producers of fertilizer.

Legislative leaders tentatively agreed to a $116 billion budget on Monday and, with no public debate or discussion, included the fertilizer language that emerged late Sunday.

It is the latest proposal to emerge in a legislative session that has fast-tracked industry-friendly bills aimed at removing local control and public input over emotionally-charged environmental and development issues.

Lawmakers took no testimony from local government officials or environmental advocates who are now warning that the measure could dramatically impede efforts to curb toxic algae outbreaks that feed on nitrogen and phosphorus-rich runoff.

“Supporting this change would allow more fertilizer runoff into Florida’s waters, period,” said Eve Samples of Friends of the Everglades. “That doesn’t benefit anyone except big fertilizer companies.”

“Fertilizer control is a key tool for local governments grappling with water quality problems,” said Gil Smart, executive director of VoteWater, an advocacy group. “If this stands, it just opens the door to even more nutrients in our waterways and more problems. It’s unconscionable.”

Rainy season move to limit tainted runoff

For years during the wet seasons, counties including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Sarasota and Manatee, as well as dozens of cities throughout Florida, have banned the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus on residential or commercial landscapes during the rainy season in an effort to reduce the nutrients that cause harmful algal blooms and red tide.

Fertilizer runoff, along with rising temperatures and lack of oxygen, were found to be among the principal contributors to a 2020 fish kill in Biscayne Bay, prompting Miami-Dade to ban fertilizer use from May 15 to Oct. 31.

But the reduction in fertilizer has taken a toll on phosphate industry revenues.

In 2014, Harvey Harper III, a University of Central Florida civil engineering professor and president of Orlando-based Environmental Research & Design, used state data to determine that fertilizer use in Florida had been on the decline since 2000.

He told the Florida Stormwater Association’s annual conference in 2014 that the Florida Department of Agriculture attributed the decline in fertilizer use to the local ordinances and, at that time, estimated the cost of the loss of fertilizer sales at about $33 million.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has adopted a model ordinance for fertilizer on Florida landscapes that was developed by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) with the support of the phosphate industry.

Harper calls the model ordinance “just a commonsense approach that really is nothing special.”

“It doesn’t go very far in terms of limiting fertilizer use,” he said Monday. “And the reason that you have seen local government taking more strict action is they are attempting to limit fertilization during the wet season months so that you have less runoff of fertilizer that is not included in the model ordinance.”

He said that IFAS has a stated objective “to produce the ‘greenest, healthiest lawn turf’ that you can get.”

IFAS is also “heavily sponsored by fertilizer industries, and a lot of their recommendations are based on green research that they’ve done for fertilizer companies,” Harper said.

No more seasonal adjustments at the local level

If the proposed language becomes law, local governments will no longer be allowed to impose seasonal fertilizer bans or stricter limits and be limited to only the model ordinance.

To justify using the budget to pass such a major shift in policy, legislators also included $6.2 million for the IFAS to study the impact of preempting local fertilizer regulations for the next year.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the House Democratic leader from Tampa, criticized the decision and said it likely violates the governor’s 2019 executive order aimed at expediting Everglades restoration efforts.

“I don’t know why we would want to take away one of our most cost-effective solutions to the water-quality issues faced here in Florida,” Driskell said. “This is brand new policy language. It has not been vetted in any committee, and it makes profound changes to water-quality standards and would impact at least 117 local governments who have these types of regulations.”

Asked to explain the rationale for the budget proposal on Monday and why the measure wasn’t debated and given a hearing this session, Florida’s legislative leaders could not provide an answer.

“It’s something the House wanted,” said Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, suggesting that it was part of a trade during budget negotiations. “There’s a lot of things we wanted that the House agreed to. That’s the give and take of the process.”

Passidomo, whose own county has imposed rainy season fertilizer bans, said she “took comfort” in the fact that the restriction on local governments would last only a year as IFAS studies it. “Then it just goes away,” she said.

Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, the House Appropriations Committee chairperson, defended the idea.

“All that language does is give us a period of time to study it so we could make thoughtful decisions,’’ he told reporters.

Harper, who has given numerous presentations on Florida’s local fertilizer ordinances, said that after he used the state data to calculate the decline in fertilizer use, FDEP stopped publicly reporting it and it is no longer available.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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