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  1. Florida Politics

Putnam looks to shift oversight of state water to his department — away from Scott

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is lobbying for the shift.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is lobbying for the shift.
Published Feb. 19, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — In another sign of frayed relations between the state's top Republican leaders, a tug-of-war is unfolding between Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam over arguably the state's most valuable commodity: water.

Putnam is lobbying for a bill that would overhaul the state's water management, loosening rules on pollution in the northern part of Lake Okeechobee.

The bill under consideration Thursday in the House Appropriations Committee would take enforcement powers away from what Scott controls: the state's Department of Environmental Protection and water management districts. Putnam's Department of Agriculture would fill the void, overseeing a far-less regulated 2-million-acre area north of Lake Okeechobee.

"We're all in this together," Putnam said in a statement on the proposed changes that his office released last month. "Our core values and our identity as a state is attached to water. We have an opportunity to think big and act boldly, and I'm excited about the opportunity."

Under House Bill 7003, which is sponsored by state Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, the permitting process used by the South Florida Water Management District to limit discharge into northern Lake Okeechobee, would be eliminated. It would be replaced by an industry standard of "best management practices," which refers to land use techniques designed to limit stormwater runoff.

Crop lands carry more phosphorous waste that leads to algae blooms, giving Lake Okeechobee its pea-soup color that can choke off marine life during periods of heavy rainfall. Under the proposed system, land owners are presumed to be in compliance with pollution limits as long as they employ the recommended land management techniques, such as planting vegetation between the crops and waterways to trap more of the waste.

But Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said using best management practices isn't as effective as permits, which regulate contamination limits for companies.

If permit limits aren't followed, the water management district can impose fines or revoke a permit. There's no comparable way to enforce conditions with best management practices.

"It's a weaker system," Draper said. "The water management district can now limit pollution. It wouldn't be allowed to with this bill."

The change could spark higher costs for taxpayers later, when millions in state and federal money is spent on cleanup projects downstream in the Everglades.

From a political perspective, it signifies a power grab in state water policy, said state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

"This bill diminishes the role of DEP," said Pafford, the House minority leader. "We're increasing the ability of the Department of Agriculture to have a say, but it's not set up to have that oversight. That's a big shift."

So far, Scott's office has lodged no public objections to ceding power to the Department of Agriculture.

It marks Putnam's latest challenge of Scott's authority. After Scott forced Gerald Bailey to resign from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Putnam was the first Cabinet member to question the move in mid January and later in the month leveled the harshest criticism.

"We were misled as to the timing and the process of how that would be handled," Putnam said. His fellow Cabinet members, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, also cited problems with how the Bailey situation was handled.

In the water issue, Putnam has found an ally in Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who like Putnam works in his family's agribusiness. He's widely viewed as a likely candidate for commissioner of agriculture. Crisafulli calls the bill, which he says "modernizes" Florida's water policy to better support a broad array of interests, a top priority this session.

"This gives us a foundation to build on in the future," Crisafulli said earlier this month. The bill, which is expected to pass the House in the first week of the session that starts March 3, should be quite different from the Senate, Crisafulli said.

"Where we match up has yet to be determined over the next couple of months," he said. "But the goal is to find common ground."

A deal that would have provided better protection for the state's natural springs, a top Senate priority, died last year. This year, state Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, is sponsoring a similar bill in Senate Bill 918 that doesn't have any of the language in the House bill on Lake Okeechobee regulations. Dean said he's pleased with his proposal and hopes the House will compromise more than it did last year.

"We had the strongest bill to support the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee in the last two years than I've ever been involved in," Dean said. "We're not going to back up very far from where we are today. We brought a lot of that back online and we feel we're doing the right thing."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com. Follow @mikevansickler.