The toxic green algae bloom spreading across Lake Okeechobee has seeped into the state’s political races, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s quest for Florida governor.
The Democratic Governors Association slammed Putnam, a Republican, in a July 10 press release, saying he cheered on weakened water quality regulations and lax oversight that they say contributed to the mess in Lake Okeechobee.
The Democrats further pushed the point on "Algae Adam" in a Medium post-July 13: "As Agriculture Commissioner, Putnam backed a water bill that gutted water quality regulations."
Did Putnam back a bill that "gutted" water regulations, and what does that have to do with the toxic situation in Lake Okeechobee?
Putnam backed a bill in 2016 that changed the oversight of water quality conditions across the state. Supporters of the measure say the law was crafted to try and reduce pollution and improve water quality. Environmentalists say the law ended up doing the opposite.
For years, pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides and human and animal waste have been pumped into Florida’s springs and water resources. SB 552, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, came about as a way to address the pollution and over-pumping, including at Lake Okeechobee, though whether it helps the situation is debated.
The measure, among other things, required the Department of Environmental Protection to define the standard for what counts as "harmful to the water resources;" revised Florida statutes so that there would be stricter requirements for certain sized wells; and required that water management districts adopt recovery and prevention policies. It also established water-flow levels for springs.
The bill overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the Legislature with just two dissenting votes from House Democrats.
Putnam did not have a vote, but he did vouch for the bill. (Putnam also supported a very similar piece of legislation, HB 7003, in 2015.)
"This builds on Florida’s strong tradition of water policy that dates back to the early ‘70s," Putnam told reporters at the time. "And it won’t be the end. I think there are things we need to continue to do but in that march toward progress. This appears to be moving and I hope it goes all the way, unlike last year."
One of the primary concerns with the new law is that it did not create clear-cut standards for water quality monitoring.
Under the new law, polluting farms can meet standards by adhering to Best Management Practices, such as building fences to keep animals out waterways. But environmentalists said that there are steps the bill could have taken when it comes to monitoring these farms, like involving the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Instead of giving more power to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to cut back on pollution, the bill put more oversight into the hands of Putnam’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Environmentalists said this amounts to voluntary pollution control strategies, rather than the concrete monitoring program they wanted to see.
This provision impacts Lake Okeechobee water quality because the algae bloom covering the lake is in part caused by excess nitrates in agricultural run-off.
"The 2016 water bill did effectively ‘gut water regulations,’ " said Kimberly Mitchell, the executive director of the Everglades Trust. "Before that, water management districts were allowed to implement pollution controls more broadly."
More than 100 environmental organizations and businesses wrote to legislators, outlining criticisms and proposing 13 amendments.
As an example, they singled out a provision for monitoring consumptive water permits. The law requires consumptive use permits for pipes with an "inside diameter of 8 inches or more." Before this, utilities had to have a consumptive use permit for more pipes under 8 inches, too.
This statement is partially accurate. We rate it Half True.
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