The Florida House's move to quickly change how the state manages and preserves water is more about pleasing developers and farmers than protecting the environment. The legislation delays the cleanup of the Everglades and puts new pressure on the water supply in fast-growing Central Florida. The priorities are upside down, and the Senate should insist on a more balanced approach.
Supporters are framing the legislation (HB 7003) as a comprehensive approach to address both water resources and conservation. In reality, this is an action plan for contractors and agribusiness masquerading as a sound policy for growth.
The bill addresses a legitimate concern for meeting the water needs in fast-growing Central Florida, where water demand is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2035 as the population swells to 4 million. It pushes the state, the three water management boards and local governments in all or parts of five counties to better collaborate on their water needs. But the bill advances an aggressive strategy toward developing new water resources while remaining silent or vague on the role that conservation should play. And it leaves the door open to forcing taxpayers in distant parts of the 5,300-square-mile region to pay for water improvements for the Orlando suburbs. Thinking in regional terms makes sense. But this bill is too skewed toward the interests of the utilities.
The measure also expands the effort in South Florida to curb the runoff of pollution entering Lake Okeechobee, a critical step in cleaning up the Everglades. But it allows farmers to effectively opt out of clean water enforcement by the Department of Environmental Protection, leaving them instead to adopt a regimen under the Department of Agriculture that replaces tight permitting restrictions with new targets. There should be tougher monitoring and enforcement of the use of large amounts of water by agriculture interests, not less.
The House killed a Senate plan for restoring Florida's springs last year, arguing that Rep. Steve Crisafulli was the incoming House speaker and wanted a bolder and more ambitious water bill to pass under his watch. This one's neither bold nor ambitious. Though it addresses the springs, the House doesn't indicate how much it would spend. It doesn't attack the source of nitrogen-choking pollution by cracking down on leaking septic tanks. And the bill requires that any plan to limit farm runoff must "balance" water quality with "agricultural productivity."
The bill sets the stage to water down the Everglades cleanup timetable, and it does nothing to advance efforts — from setting stronger antipollution rules to buying land in the basin — that would have a real impact. It gives the state more authority over local officials in determining how water resources are used. And the Agriculture Department will assume more of a regulatory role over the very industry the agency promotes.
This is not what Florida voters had in mind in overwhelmingly voting in November to enshrine water and land conservation in the state Constitution. And many aspects of this legislation work against the very projects that taxpayers will commit billions of dollars to in the coming years. The House has work to do; advertising this bill as a forward-looking water policy doesn't make it so. It is in many respects a step backward and tilts in favor of both large urban and agricultural water users rather than conservation and the concerns of individual Floridians.