TALLAHASSEE — With the session set to end Friday, there seems to be little chance of enacting major new regulations on polluters.
A proliferation of toxic algae blooms — including several in Northwest Florida — known as red tide dealt a major blow to Florida’s environment and economy last year, and there already are signs that the blooms are returning as the weather heats up.
But despite big promises from candidates during the 2018 election and lawmakers leading up to Florida’s 60-day legislative session, environmental advocates are underwhelmed by the water quality proposals that appear to have a chance of passing this year.
Bills aimed at forcing homeowners, businesses and local governments to limit nutrient pollution have stalled or been watered down to the point that critics argue they will have little impact.
Instead, lawmakers are dedicating hundreds of millions to environmental clean-up efforts, which have broad support but do nothing to crack down on polluters.
The reluctance of legislative leaders to put new restrictions on pollution is not surprising in a GOP-controlled Legislature that is resistant to regulation. But it is still disappointing for many lawmakers and environmental advocates, who believed this year could be different.
Florida suffered through a tsunami of algae problems last year, from red tide on the west coast to blue-green blooms spreading from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and a brown tide bloom in the Indian River Lagoon. Many freshwater springs continue to be choked by algae and other major waterbodies, such as the St. Johns River, have endured persistent blooms.
April brought more reports of algae blooms in both the Caloosahatchee and St. Johns, leading to concerns about another summer of slime.
The recent red tide bloom — which is naturally-occurring but can be exacerbated by excessive nutrients from sources such as leaky septic tanks and lawn fertilizer in stormwater runoff — stretched over 15 months and was one of the five worst in recorded history. The massive fish kills and foul-smelling water delivered a huge economic hit, with Sarasota County experiencing a big drop in hotel occupancy in the fourth quarter of last year.
Southwest Florida lawmakers vowed to act. State Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, and state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, filed a bill requiring mandatory inspections to ensure septic tanks aren’t failing and leaching nutrient-rich human waste into waterways.
The bill never advanced in the Senate and cleared just one committee in the House after rural lawmakers raised concerns about the cost of inspections.
“We’ll try again next session and keep advancing common-sense policy,” Robinson said. “I’ve always thought you need not only an appropriations component to improve water quality but a regulatory component. Tougher regulations on folks who pollute our water quality is a priority of mine and I’ll continue fighting for that.”