'Landmark' water proposals coming in 2014 session
Multi-year legislative focus would put money behind comprehensive effort to protect state's fresh water
Florida lawmakers say they plan to take major steps to protect the state’s springs and freshwater supply during the next legislative session.
In recent weeks, the incoming leaders of the state House and Senate have signaled that they intend to make water issues a priority when they take the helm after the 2014 elections.
But a bipartisan group of state senators plan to get started before then. They are working on a proposal to protect Florida’s springs.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and has been taking part in regular meetings with four Republican colleagues. He said they are working on “landmark” legislation intended to serve as “the opening play ... for a tremendous and significant approach to addressing water issues” over the next few years.
“I think you’re going to see that this spring, this session, there is going to be a concerted effort to take a first major step in a comprehensive solution to preserving both quantity and quality of water resources in the state of Florida — something not only for our children but our children’s children,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.
Simmons said Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, is the leader of the quintet, which also includes Sens. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. All three chair key committees overseeing environmental issues.
They are working on proposals intended to:
• Require regulators to create protection zones and curb pollution around the state’s major springs.
• Limit water withdrawals that could harm flow levels in those springs.
• Encourage the use of reclaimed water and water-storage systems that would give businesses and farmers alternative water sources while reducing pumping from the aquifer.
• Ensure property owners are not stuck with the bills for connecting their homes to municipal sewer systems or cleaning up runoff from their septic tanks.
The legislation aims to attach deadlines to the state’s water-quality and water-quantity requirements, make them stronger around dozens of Florida’s most prized springs, and provide substantial state funding to help meet them, Simmons said.
He said the senators will likely revise their proposal as they hear from state agencies, local governments, industry groups and farmers. But he said he has advice for anyone who denies there’s a problem: “Get a reality check. Go down to one of our endangered springs and take a swim.”
“Doing nothing is not a solution, and that is unacceptable to us,” Simmons said. “Compromise is acceptable.”
Montford and Simmons said they hope to encourage those compromises by tackling a range of issues in a single bill, from water supplies to water-quality threats from septic tanks to wastewater treatment to agricultural runoff. By providing state funding, they intend to reduce, and in some cases eliminate, the costs to local governments, farmers and homeowners.
Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon of Florida, said any effort to curb pollution affecting rivers and springs is going to face pushback from developers and agricultural interests. But with the economy rebounding and concerns about the health of Florida’s environment mounting across the state, he said he senses a growing appetite for springs legislation.
“I think we’re seeing the pendulum swinging back toward the legislators recognizing that Floridians want environmental protection,” he said.
Future legislative leaders have indicated they plan to wrestle with water-quality issues in the coming years. After his colleagues voted to designate him as the next Senate president, state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said protecting the state’s natural resources, including water — and promoting them to boost tourism — would be one of his three main priorities leading the Senate.
His counterpart in the house, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, has sent a similar message. In a recent newspaper guest column, he called for statewide water planning.
“If there’s one issue issue that I’ve identified, having the opportunity to become speaker (after the 2014 elections), this is the one,” he said.
Last session, lawmakers approved $10 million for springs protection, and Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said the state was able to turn that into $36 million in projects by working with local governments and water management districts.
Crisafulli said he expects the House to take a “project-based approach” in the upcoming session, and lay the groundwork for an overhaul of the state’s water policies in the years that follow, noting that lawmakers are not going to untangle Florida’s complex water issues in a single 60-day session.
Montford said he agrees it will take a multi-year effort.
“We did not get into the position we’re in overnight, and we will not get out overnight,” he said. “We’ll make a tremendous start on it this year.”