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State Water Policy Changes Begin To Flow

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Legislature
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Lawmakers appear closer to patching up differences on new statewide water policies which failed to advance earlier this year.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told reporters on Wednesday that talks were well underway to solve "minor technical hang-ups." Two days later, measures dealing with the issue were filed in both chambers. The proposals contain most of the elements included in a business-friendly plan approved by the House last year but which failed to win Senate support.

The measures seek to establish water flow levels for the state's natural springs and define the Central Florida Water Initiative. The bills also include further management action plans for Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee Estuary, and the St. Lucie River and Estuary, the inland portion of the Caloosahatchee River watershed.

The proposals (SB 552, PCB SAC 16-01) also would require the Office of Economic and Demographic Research to provide an annual assessment of the state's water resources and conservation lands, something that was not included in the House's plan this spring.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said that having state economists "a little more involved" gives him more comfort about the plans. The Senate's push to include an oversight council to rate potential water projects was one of the sticking points earlier this year.

"That certainly gives me a comfort that there is somebody besides just the political side of the decision making," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said Monday.

The House water proposal --- backed by the state's agriculture industry and influential business groups --- earlier this year failed to get approval from the Senate, whose members had their own ideas about changing the state's water policies to meet the demands of a voter-approved constitutional amendment about land and water conservation.

The Senate moved closer to the House's proposed expansion of best-management practices --- such as advanced stormwater management, erosion controls and specific fertilizing procedures --- beyond the 470,000-acre farming region south of Lake Okeechobee to all lands around Lake Okeechobee and the state's natural springs.

But before the session was scuttled over the state budget, the Senate reaffirmed its support to include two measures that had been opposed by the House ---a pedestrian trail network backed by Gardiner and an oversight council to rate potential water projects.

The bike trail network, known as SunTrail, was settled when it was worked into the final budget that was approved in a special session in June.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Matt Caldwell, whose committee will discuss the water proposal on Thursday, called the inclusion of the state economists a compromise.

"We came to a resolution," Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said on Monday. "The Senate felt very strongly about a council proposal, and we instead agreed upon this (Office of Economic and Demographic Research) report."

Otherwise, the 2016 proposals mostly start where the House measure died at the end of the 2015 session, Caldwell said.

The current measures also include a Senate plan that Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper said would give the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services "more teeth" regarding water quality than what was initially proposed by the House at the beginning of the year.

"It gives more certainty that ag producers will do a better job controlling pollution," Draper said.

On Wednesday, Crisafulli told reporters that the policy changes are needed before water issues become a crisis for the state.

"We have to look no further than California to know what these challenges could look like --- a state experiencing a drought that has left them with potentially, as they say today, one year of reserves, an agricultural industry that is losing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs, that has really no contingency in place," Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said.

Speaking at the Florida Chamber of Commerce's Future of Florida Forum late last month, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam mirrored Crisafulli's assessment of the differences between the House and Senate.

Putnam also drew upon near-apocalyptic images of drought-plagued California and Florida's growing population --- which could potentially create a one billion gallon-per-day shortfall by 2030 --- as reasons lawmakers need to close their remaining "minor" differences over water policy.

Putnam told the chamber that the key parts of the proposed legislation will help avoid local governmental fights over water rights that dominated some regions in the 1980s and that could hamper the state's business recruitment efforts.

"You can't expect world class attractions in Orlando to put billions of dollars into their parks if they don't know whether they're going to get an allocation for their newest water-based features," Putnam said. "You can't expect to bring in a Boeing, a Mercedes, whatever shiny economic-development prize that we want, if there is some question about whether the most fundamental element in economic development will be available to them."