The bill would impose new regulations on polluters, a departure for a Legislature that has been averse to strict new environmental standards.
TALLAHASSEE - A wide-ranging water quality bill that was praised by both environmental activists and industry cleared a Florida Senate committee Wednesday.
The bill would impose new regulations on polluters, a departure for a Legislature that has been averse to strict new environmental standards. It is a top priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who mentioned the legislation in his State of the State speech last week.
The measure received unanimous support from the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government. It also was backed by groups ranging from Audubon Florida to agriculture interests and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
"It blows me away really to see that kind of support," said Sen. Ben Albritton, a Republican citrus grower from Wauchula who marveled that groups with such diverse perspectives would endorse the legislation.
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But a pair of leading environmental groups criticized an amendment to the bill that reduced the frequency of data collection from farms, criticism that irked Albritton and bill sponsor Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic.
Everglades Foundation representative Anna Upton said "this amendment goes backwards on a specific provision… when it comes to data collection."
Upton said the farm data is "really, really important to understand how do we treat the water going into Lake Okeechobee." The data should be collected more frequently that the amendment provides, Upton said. Sierra Club lobbyist Dave Cullen also said the data collection efforts are "considerably compromised" by the amendment.
Farm runoff is a major source of nutrient pollution, along with septic tanks, wastewater spills and urban stormwater runoff. Excess nutrients can feed algae blooms such as the blue-green algae and red tide that devastated Florida’s environment and economy in 2018.
Mayfield noted that even the revised farm data collection schedule will provide more information than currently is collected.
"What we are trying to do is do something that we’ve never done before," Mayfield said, adding later that "This bill does not take us backward anywhere in the process, it takes us forward."
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Albritton called the record-keeping required of farmers and the onsite inspections they’d still be subject to under the amended legislation "a big deal."
"This is gonna make a difference," Albritton said.
Upton agreed that the amended bill is still "a dramatic, significant improvement from the status quo."
In addition to the agriculture component, Mayfield’s bill (SB 712) – dubbed the "Clean Waterways Act" – makes a variety of other changes to state law that are designed to limit excess nutrients from flowing into waterways.
The legislation moves oversight of septic tanks from the state Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection, and directs DEP to adopt rules for where septic tanks can be located. It also directs DEP to develop updated stormwater rules, new rules to limit leaks from underground sewer pipes and new rules for managing the application of biosolids, or human waste that is used as fertilizer.
Mayfield highlighted revisions to rules surrounding so-called Basin Management Action Plans as a major aspect of the bill that make it "a huge step" toward improving water quality. The BMAPS are legally enforceable blueprints for reducing pollution in watersheds throughout the state.
In watersheds where septic tanks or sewer systems are contributing more than 20% of the nutrient pollution, or in areas where septic and sewer improvements are deemed necessary to reach pollution reduction goals, the BMAPs would have to include "remediation plans" to cut pollution from these sources.
Local governments would be required to put forward new wastewater infrastructure projects, likely at a significant cost. The legislation creates a new "wastewater grant program" to help cover those costs.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein attended the hearing. He said DeSantis is "focused every day on improving water quality in Florida" and thanked Mayfield for the bill.