The water bill that the Florida House rammed through as its first order of business last week was lauded by supporters as a forward-looking, measured approach to managing the state's natural resources. It is no such thing. The legislation (HB 7003) is a relief act for farmers and developers masquerading as water policy that doesn't address the past or position Florida to plan for the future. That leaves the Senate with the responsibility of drafting a smarter, comprehensive water policy.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has only himself to blame. The House killed a Senate plan last year to restore Florida's polluted springs, insisting that the Merritt Island Republican wanted to wait for his speakership to craft a bigger, bolder plan for water policy. The bill the House fast-tracked under his watch is a shell of what was promised. The measure includes weak protections for springs before veering off into special-interest territory. It weakens the cleanup regimen for Lake Okeechobee, a gateway for pollutants into the Everglades, and would put into state law a plan for Central Florida that virtually ignores conservation in this fast-growing region.
A comprehensive water bill would have addressed saltwater intrusion from overpumping in South Florida and the scarcity of freshwater in North Florida that is wreaking havoc on the state's fabled oyster industry. It would have taken serious, immediate steps to crack down on leaking septic tanks that are polluting the state's drinking water supply. It would have given conservation a robust role in meeting future water needs. It would include a plan for buying more farmland in South Florida to further curb nutrient pollution choking the Everglades. The House bill does none of this, and it is no secret that it tilts too far toward pleasing agricultural interests as Crisafulli eyes running for agriculture commissioner in 2018.
The Senate bill isn't as far-reaching as it should be, but it is more focused on water quality. The plan imposes a range of new protections and tight deadlines for restoring Florida's springs. It recognizes the negative impact of millions of septic tanks in Florida, brings local governments into the cleanup effort and sets the stage for Florida to make smarter decisions over how to develop and pay for new water sources. The bill also looks at water as a vital resource, underscoring that science and the public interest come first. For added measure, it expands access to the state's trails and greenways.
The Senate bill is not better by accident. The House made the deliberate decision not to send a major overhaul of agricultural and environmental policy to the very two House committees that oversee it. The Department of Environmental Protection, which this governor has leashed, has had virtually no public input on the measure and refuses to say whether it supports or opposes a bill that has already passed the House. The Senate, by contrast, has solicited wide input on its plan (SB 918) for several years. And senators have insisted that any legislation must contain deadlines to act, specific funding and the transparency to ensure that these cleanup plans are actually making a difference.
The Senate, which will take up its water bill this week, is on the right course. It recognizes that preserving the environment is not in conflict but essential to meeting the state's future water needs. That concept was lost in the bipartisan rush by the House to please the speaker, developers and agribusiness. The Legislature has plenty of time to take a smarter approach on water than this initial power play.