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DeSantis Signs Sweeping New Environmental Law For Cleaner Water

An abandoned sailboat is partially submerged in the Indian River near Cocoa Village Marina, in Cocoa Beach, on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
An abandoned sailboat is partially submerged in the Indian River near Cocoa Village Marina, in Cocoa Beach, on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Tuesday a proposal expected to improve water quality across the state.

The Republican governor called the measure “one of the most significant pieces of substantive legislation in quite some time,” but environmentalists said it falls short of efforts necessary to protect Florida’s waters.

The new law, known as the Clean Waterways Act, takes effect July 1 and aims to remedy some of the state’s most egregious water pollution.

It will transfer the state’s septic system oversight from Florida’s Department of Health to its Department of Environmental Protection by 2021. It also creates a wastewater grant program to help the environmental agency fund projects known as Basin Management Action Plans in areas especially vulnerable to nutrient pollution.

“All these changes are a really strong step forward for Florida’s environment,” DeSantis said Tuesday at a press conference in Juno Beach.

The bill also prohibits local governments from granting the environment legal rights, including to plants, wildlife and bodies of water. The move preempts the so-called Rights of Nature movement that in the U.S. and elsewhere has sought or used the maneuver to improve environmental protections for rivers, mountains, forests, glaciers and more.

Another provision, which won’t go into effect until July 2025, prohibits wastewater treatment facilities from dumping untreated sewage into Indian River Lagoon, south of Cocoa Beach, along the Atlantic coast, one of Florida’s hotspots for brown tide.

“We have a full-fledged environmental movement going on here in Florida that I think the nation is paying attention to,” said Noah Valenstein, the state’s secretary for environmental protection.

Environmentalists said the new law isn’t tough enough on agriculture, a politically powerful influence in Florida and one that is responsible for the vast majority of nutrient pollution in Florida’s waterways, a leading cause of harmful algal blooms. The budget the governor approved this week allocates $25 million for the upcoming fiscal year to combat the blooms and red tide.

The Hubert Humphrey Bridge, located near Cocoa Village Marina, crosses Indian River as seen on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Cocoa Beach.
Credit Emily Felts/Fresh Take Florida
The Hubert Humphrey Bridge, located near Cocoa Village Marina, crosses Indian River as seen on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Cocoa Beach.

Despite widespread support among legislators, 50 environmental groups within and outside the state urged DeSantis earlier this year to veto the bill. In a letter, the groups said that “far from fixing these problems,” the measure was a symptom of serious environmental failures.

“What this bill has done is give the status quo of another five, 10, 15 years of water pollution,” said Sierra Club Florida lobbyist David Cullen. “It’s not a success. Allowing it to go forward only gives cover to the fact that the state will not do what needs to be done.”

The legislation requires the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to conduct inspections of farmers and ranchers every two years, with a focus on vulnerable areas like Indian River Lagoon, the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary in South Florida, Silver Springs in north central Florida and Lake Okeechobee. The department is also required to report fertilization and nutrient records from agricultural producers to the Department of Environmental Protection and collaborate with research institutions to strengthen and fund nutrient reduction projects.

One of the bill’s biggest accomplishments involved employing more agriculture department experts to conduct inspections, said Samual J. Ard, a lobbyist for the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. He said he was glad to see the bill focus on multiple sources of pollution, saying it’s hard to compare the impact of one cow per six acres with one septic tank per acre sitting near a canal.

The director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy, Chris Pettit, said in an interview the state will add eight employees as part of the effort. Negotiations started a year ago, he said.

“It does take time,” Pettit said.

Ard said rising costs of fertilizer and factors like weather, soil composition and location mean fertilizer isn’t dumped onto land in mass amounts, contrary to popular perception. Grazing cattle extracts phosphorus from the soil, he said, keeping the land in better shape than would a developed property.

Ard called the bill an “olive branch,” noting bipartisan support between the Republican Senate and Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

“It’s very, very hard to pass a bill of any kind, so when you get something this broad, it’s a feat to have it passed,” Ard said.

Water-quality problems are complex in Florida, with its burgeoning population growth, said Mary Hartney, president of the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, which promotes responsible use of pesticides and fertilizers.

“You cannot have that many people love living in Florida and not have an environmental impact,” she said. “I hate to see agriculture get singled out for these water quality issues.”

In a letter to state Chief Science Officer Thomas Frazer, the Florida Springs Council, Sierra Club Florida and Waterkeepers Florida organizations criticized the bill’s provisions, saying they were unable to achieve state water quality goals.

“It is the policy equivalent of slapping a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” the letter said. “It may not hurt, but it won’t really help.”

Ryan Smart, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Springs Council Inc., complained that while the Clean Waterways Act addresses many of the state’s water quality problems, it prioritizes projects in South Florida, the state’s densest population region.

Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas Riverkeeper executive director, said the bill was “watered down into something that really falls short of what’s needed,” adding that it shouldn’t be characterized as a solution to all of Florida’s water quality problems.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, who also sponsored other environmental bills this legislative session. Her assistant said Mayfield worked more than two years to develop the proposal with recommendations from the Blue-Green Algae Task Force and will continue to be an advocate for the environment.

Brian Lapointe, a water-quality researcher who has studied harmful algal blooms for decades, said he thinks the bill’s provisions for septic systems and wastewater management will benefit areas like Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie estuary and the Caloosahatchee River basin, where his research shows that human waste is the main catalyst for such nutrient pollution.

“This is the beginning,” he said. “We’re all going to be closely watching to see exactly how (the Clean Waterways Act) plays out in real-time years to come.”

Roth, the environmentalist, has been passionate about granting legal rights to the environment and was disappointed to see the Legislature block those efforts.

“It cuts off the hands of anybody that might want to do something about the environment if the state decides not to do anything,” he said. “Time is running short.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at mstarling@freshtakeflorida.com

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Marlowe Starling - Fresh Take Florida