Water bills ready for quick vote but environmental groups want to slow it down

Published Jan. 8, 2016

Florida has some serious water woes: spreading nutrient pollution, the algae-choked springs and, in the Indian River Lagoon, massive sea grass and wildlife die-offs.

Yet for the past two years, the Legislature has failed to deal with the problem. Politics got in the way.

In 2014, everyone from Gov. Rick Scott to a coalition of environmental groups and a consortium of business and industry groups said the Legislature needed to take swift action on water issues.

The Senate was willing, but outgoing House Speaker Will Weatherford said no. He wanted everyone to wait a year until his replacement, Steve Crisafulli, could tackle the issue. Water would be the No. 1 priority, House leaders promised.

Yet in 2015, the water policy rewrite everyone wanted again was derailed by politics.

Amid a dispute with the Senate over the budget, Crisafulli's House stormed out of the Capitol several days early. The abrupt departure violated the state Constitution and also left Crisafulli's No. 1 priority dead in the water.

The legislative session that starts Tuesday marks Crisafulli's last shot at rewriting Florida's water policy. He's promising that the bills — HB 7005 and SB 552 — will be voted on quickly.

"That will be a bill that comes up the first week," he told reporters in a Dec. 18 news conference.

But now environmental groups, eco-tour companies and civic activists want to slow things down. They say those bills in their current form are too friendly to polluters and not protective of Florida's citizens.

"They're missing some serious priorities," said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. She also said the current bills contain loopholes "that make the other provisions ineffective."

Missing, for instance, is language that would establish water conservation as a priority and deadlines for setting the maximum amount of pollution allowed in waterways, the groups contend.

In addition, a section on a new Central Florida drinking supply program calls for letting private companies get taxpayer money for withdrawing surface water from rivers and streams without any assurance they will be effective, the groups noted in a letter to the Legislature signed by 106 of them.

But the House sponsor, Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, said he can't see any reason for amending the bill at this point.

"This (bill) is the result of three years of discussion, negotiation and legislative consideration," he said. The sponsor in the other chamber, Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, is a little more open to changes — but not much.

"I have told people, bring me language and I will review it," Dean said.

Caldwell said he thinks of a bill like this one as being like one of the towers that players build during a game of Jenga. Try loading on too many amendments and a third year may go by without any action on a water bill, he said, because "there's a point at which any more messing with it will knock it over."