1. Opinion

Florida's water woes are seen as urgent — except in the House (w/video)

Published Mar. 1, 2014

A remarkable alignment of Florida political interests has occurred this year — perhaps because it's an election year, perhaps because the urgency of the problem has drawn a lot of attention.

Gov. Rick Scott, several powerful state senators, a coalition of environmental groups and a consortium of business and industry groups all say the Legislature needs to do something this year about fixing Florida's water.

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

"Water quality and quantity have the potential to limit residential and business growth, and we need to attack this problem head-on with forward-thinking solutions," Tom Feeney, president of the probusiness Associated Industries of Florida, said in February.

A rally for clean water drew 200 people to Tallahassee last month, all clamoring for quick action. One speaker, former Department of Community Affairs secretary Tom Pelham, told the crowd, "The time to act is now. Delay will only make the situation worse and the solutions more costly."

The House is the one place where there's no such sense of urgency.

"I don't foresee any major changes to water policy this year," said Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

The reason, said the man who will be speaker next year, is simple: "It's going to take more than a year to solve this problem."

Crisafulli, who hails from a prominent citrus family and is former president of the Brevard County Farm Bureau, pointed out that Florida's water problem is actually a whole suite of woes involving both water quality and water quantity.

"Nobody has really come up with one silver bullet answer," he said in an interview a day before the clean water rally.

In Crisafulli's backyard lies the Indian River Lagoon, which has been battling pollution that likely fueled a series of toxic algae blooms blamed for wiping out 40,000 acres of sea grass. Since then hundreds of manatees, dolphins and pelicans have died, too. Scientists are not sure if the deaths are related to each other or to the pollution and sea grass die-off.

Meanwhile the state's iconic springs — many of them owned by the taxpayers as part of the state park system — have suffered from increased pollution, toxic algae blooms and a loss of flow that some have blamed on overpumping of the aquifer by agriculture and development interests.

Further south, the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast and the St. Lucie River on the east coast have born the brunt of polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee by federal officials trying to lower the water level before it breaches the berm surrounding the lake.

The emergency releases have fouled the estuaries of both rivers, hurting their sea grass beds and marine life and causing economic consequences for fishing and tourist industries.

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Water supply has become a prickly issue. In Apalachicola, the oyster industry that has long tied the town together is failing and Scott is suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court for holding back too much water that normally flows down to Florida.

Niagara Bottling's Groveland plant overcame strong opposition to get a permit to boost its pumping from the aquifer from 484,000 gallons a day to 910,000 gallons. The Adena Springs Ranch near Silver Springs has faced similar opposition to its request for a permit to pump 5.3 million gallons daily for its proposed cattle operation.

Meanwhile, a coalition of five of Central Florida's fastest-growing counties have proposed slaking their future thirst by pumping 150 million gallons per day from the St. Johns River. The proposal has proven controversial, with critics pointing out that the St. Johns is already suffering a loss of flow as well as dealing with pollution-fueled algae blooms.

None of these are new problems. They all date back at least a year and, in the case of both the springs and the Lake Okeechobee releases, a decade or more. But finding the political will to deal with them has been difficult. Just last year, for instance, Scott vetoed money for tracking the pollution in Indian River Lagoon.

One thing all of these problems appear to have in common is the type of pollution involved — nitrate pollution, made up of excess nitrogen and phosphorus, from wasted fertilizer, animal waste and leaking septic tanks. Scott's administration fought hard to wrest away from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate nitrate pollution, and now must grapple with it in waterways across the state.

Last year thousands of people petitioned Scott for more protection and restoration for the state's springs. Local government officials in North Florida formed a group to push for springs legislation. However, no springs bill passed.

The Legislature did agree last year to spend $10 million for springs protection, far from the $122 million in projects that the state's five water management districts had listed as essential to springs restoration.

This year, Scott has proposed the Legislature appropriate $55 million to restore and protect the state's springs. The Senate is ready to spend even more than that. A coalition of Senate committee chairs has drafted a bill to raise nearly $400 million a year for springs from documentary stamp taxes on real estate transactions, using it for hooking septic tank users up to central sewer lines in the regions around major springs.

There's also a Senate bill to spend $220 million to protect the Indian River Lagoon and to redirect the damaging water releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Crisafulli doesn't like the dollar figure on the Senate's springs bill, calling it "the biggest, most unfortunate part" of any water-related measure. An amount that big "would take away the opportunity to work on other issues around the state."

He foresees putting aside an as-yet undetermined amount of money this year "to fund as much as we can, and not just focus on one region." There will be no comprehensive fixes, just individual projects that offer a chance for improvement — for instance, removing 6 million cubic yards of polluted muck from the bottom of the Indian River Lagoon.

Resolving all of Florida's water problems, he said, "is going to take a commitment continuing out for an indefinite number of years." That's how to resolve what's needed for any new state water policy, he said.

Ironically, according to Estus Whitfield, who served as an aide to governors from Reubin Askew to Jeb Bush, "Florida has had a water policy, the most widely acclaimed in the U.S., for over 40 years."

So how did things get so messed up? "Thanks to a lack of conviction and implementation by our state government, and with a little help from our friends in the business and ag industries," Whitfield said, "it has not been effective in preventing the serious demise of our water resources."

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Times. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.


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