Gov. Ron DeSantis will soon sign what the Legislature, in an example of clever marketing, has labeled the “Clean Waterways Act,” Senate Bill 712. Will he give us straight talk about the limited advances in this legislation or will he take a victory lap?
Legislative leaders deserve credit for a comprehensive approach to our water problems. The 111-page bill addresses agriculture, using biosolids as fertilizer, oversight of septic tanks, wastewater treatment systems, enhanced penalties and other issues. But comprehensive is not the same as effective. Addressing pollution at its source means that the rules should be as tough for agriculture as on leaking septic tanks and outdated municipal sewage treatment plants.
Legislators claimed that the bill incorporates recommendations of the Blue Green Algae Task Force, which the governor created in his first environmental executive order. But only some of the task force’s recommendations made it into SB 712.
1. The task force was skeptical of the effectiveness of how agriculture has been regulated -— by presumed compliance with best management practices (BMPs) granted upon enrollment. “There are limited data available outside of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) that demonstrate environmental benefits of BMPs.”
Although “Outstanding Florida Springs” watersheds are substantially polluted by excess nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture, SB 712 is light on enforcement and too reliant on voluntary best management practices.
The bill requires the Agriculture Department to inspect farms every two years to determine whether pollution from manure or nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizers are seeping into waterways and feeding the growth of blue-green algae. Those inspections — to ensure compliance with standards that are too weak to reach already agreed upon water quality goals — will not help.
2. The task force recommended “a septic system inspection and monitoring program” to identify “improperly functioning and/or failing systems so that corrective action can be taken to reduce nutrient pollution, negative environmental impacts and preserve human health.” But mandatory inspections have been left out of SB 712.
The task force also noted that “current regulations prohibit permitting of new septic systems on lots of 1 acre or less … within an Outstanding Florida Spring watershed unless the system includes enhanced treatment.” They recommended the “broader adoption of this rule to protect other vulnerable areas across the state.” That recommendation was ignored.
The Legislature did not include items called for by the governor. Last October, the governor called for legislation to ensure that biosolids (sludge from wastewater treatment plants) would be applied only on land sufficiently above the water table and far enough from surface water to prevent runoff into creeks, canals and water bodies.
Continued use of biosolids as agricultural fertilizer — at least in our most environmentally sensitive areas — should be curtailed. An earlier version of SB 712 prohibited spreading biosolids where the water table is less than 6 inches from the biosolids. An amendment changed that to permit its use if an “approved nutrient management plan and water quality monitoring plan provide reasonable assurances” the sludge will not seep into surface or groundwater.
Complicating any overall judgment about SB 712 is that its elements need to be evaluated on their own merits.
Two sections of SB 712 might have lasting impact: a matching grant program to upgrade septic systems or hook a septic tank to a municipal sewage system and another grant program to help upgrade outdated municipal sewage treatment plants.
The latter provision is not inconsequential. Think of the trauma of the folks in Fort Lauderdale where — as of February — seven sewer line breaks dumped 211.6 million gallons of sewage into streams and streets, or the folks in Fort Myers where 183,000 gallons — the biggest sewage spill in the city’s history — leaked into waterways due to a power outage at a lift station.
The need for effective policies and enforcement strategies to reverse our state’s water crisis is urgent. The outbreaks of harmful algae blooms and red tide threaten our way of life. But there is also mounting evidence that some toxins (microcystins) produced by the algae blooms are a threat to respiratory health and can cause liver cancer and that another toxin (BMAA) is a cause of neurological diseases, including ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.
The $93.2 million budget the Legislature approved pre-COVID-19 likely will need to be revised, and probably downward to cover reduced revenue and emergency expenses to combat the pandemic. The budget includes $650 million for water quality improvements. Hopefully, the governor will be able to protect as much of that as possible for the matching grant programs and for the increased enforcement responsibilities of state agencies.
So, Gov. DeSantis, protect the budget for essential water quality improvements — and tell the Legislature that there is much more to do.
Howard L. Simon is the retired executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He is now president of the Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation.