Water issues bubble to surface in legislative session

By Lisa Grubba
Resident Community News

Two bi-partisan bills moving through the current legislative session could impact the health of the St. Johns River.
Senate Bill 1576 and House Bill 1313 would protect some of the state’s crucial springs, provide funding for septic tank and sewage treatment plant improvements, and set deadlines for the state to monitor pollution levels in the springs.

“If we don’t do what’s right, our springs will get to the point where we can’t fix it,” said Senator Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, at a public rally on the Old Capital steps in February.  Montford is co-sponsor of SB 1576, along with four Republican senators.

The St. Johns River is “only as healthy as our springs,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper’s (SJRK) Lisa Rinaman. “The river is fed by 85 freshwater springs.”
Florida’s springs are world famous for their iridescent color from a combination of clear water, white sandy beds, and limestone rock. Now, many are algae covered and lifeless. As Florida has grown, so has pollution, from fertilizer runoff, livestock runoff, leaky septic tanks, and commercial discharge. At the same time, the water pumping into the springs from underground has decreased, reducing the ability to flush out pollutants.

The reasons for reduced spring flow are in dispute, and finger-pointing among polluters is heating up. But one fact is clear: as the springs decline, so do lakes and rivers. And that’s got the attention of politicians from all across the state.

“Let this be the year that protecting our waters in Florida is cool again,” said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, at the February rally, where he shared the podium with a dozen politicians, both Democrat and Republican.

The bi-partisan sponsorship has generated a lot of buzz among capital watchers. It’s an “unusual alliance of…five strongly committed senate committee chairs,” said Ryan Smart of the Florida Conservation Coalition, an environmental group started by Senator Bob Graham.

SB 1576 was drafted by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and was initially opposed by business and agricultural groups. Twenty-four groups got together, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Farm Bureau, and Boat U.S., and sent a letter with their concerns to the co-sponsors. One concern was that the bill required business, homeowners and municipalities to comply with stricter regulation even if state funding isn’t available. Sen. Simmons amended language early in the session to address that concern.
The letter also said that new legislation isn’t needed. “Florida has the regulatory tools it needs to meet the kinds of water supply and quality challenges this legislation seeks to address. These programs simply need to be fully funded and conscientiously implemented,” it reads. But FCC’s Smart said because there are deadlines, the legislation “forces policies that have been on the books 30 or 40 years.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, initially said he didn’t expect to see water policy addressed this year. He said funds would be put toward restoration, but not prevention. But fellow Republican Sen. Simmons pushed back on that at the February rally.  ”I’ve spoken with other legislators and it’s growing. We will establish a water policy in this state, not only for this year, but every year.”

SJRK’s Rinaman said she sees Weatherford’s position “softening” due to public input and bipartisan support. At the least, 2015’s incoming leaders have expressed a willingness to tackle policy issues.

The projected $1.3 billion state budget surplus makes projects of all types easier than in recent years. Governor Rick Scott’s proposed budget includes $1.4 billion in water restoration projects, after years of cuts to environmental budgets. Of that, $55 million is earmarked for springs.

But Rinaman said that about half of the springs budget, or $25 million, is for developing alternative water supply plans, such as the proposals to pump water out of the St. Johns River.  SJRK’s position has been that the state should increase water conservation and tighten withdrawal permits before spending the money to siphon water from the river. “It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Rinaman.

The bills will likely be amended as they move through various subcommittees during the two-month session. To track the bills and their votes, go to www.myfloridahouse.gov, click on “bills” in the top toolbar, and enter bill number 1576 (Senate) or 1313 (House) in the box below. The session ends in April.

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