Florida lawmakers vowing to crack down on pollution that contributes to algae problems
Despite a devastating series of algae blooms that wreaked havoc on Florida’s environment and economy, state lawmakers did nothing last year to crack down on polluters who release excess nutrients that feed the blooms.
Republican leaders in the Legislature are vowing that this year will be different when it comes to improving water quality, though.
Rather than simply plowing money into environmental cleanup efforts, lawmakers say they plan to attack pollution at the source.
New regulations on polluters are being proposed, and they have some prominent GOP backers. If approved, they would represent a significant departure for a GOP-controlled Legislature that often is averse to regulation.
The push to limit pollution from flowing into waterways and fouling one of the state’s most important natural resources has a powerful ally in Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has publicly endorsed two bills that would create new environmental rules.
“There’s gonna be lots of new regulations when it comes to protecting our water,” said Sarasota state Sen. Joe Gruters, who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “We’re in a new era. Republicans are controlling this issue and we’re going to make sure we’re protecting Florida’s environmental resources for generations to come.”
Gruters is sponsoring a bill that would increase penalties for sewage spills, a problem that has plagued municipal utilities across the state. The fines would go up by 50% — from $10,000 to $15,000 a day — and could continue until an agreement is reached on how to solve the problem going forward. Fines for other environmental violations also would increase.
DeSantis touted the sewage spill legislation in his State of the State address last week.
“Those that spew untreated wastewater into Florida’s waterbodies need to be deterred from doing so by appropriate penalties,” the governor said. “Too many municipalities have failed to invest in needed upgrades to their water infrastructure in part because it is cheaper to violate the law and pay a nominal fine. This is unacceptable and needs to change.”
The governor also is pushing another bill that emerged from a task force he convened last year to investigate the state’s blue green algae problem, which has been particularly troublesome for communities connected to Lake Okeechobee by the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
The taskforce recommendations have been incorporated into legislation filed in both the House and Senate that include a regulatory component.
Some environmental advocates say they are encouraged by the water quality bills that have been put forward so far.
“I’m very positive, I think that there is momentum,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters. “Let’s hope that the special interest groups don’t stop it, but I’m hopeful.”
Lawmakers advanced similar bills last year without success. One reason the bills may have stalled is that DeSantis did not champion any new regulations, instead focusing on environmental cleanup funding.
This year the governor has been outspoken that new environmental rules are needed.
The bill that came out of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force “is based on sound science and provides a roadmap to reduce nutrients in our water,” DeSantis said.
State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, is sponsoring DeSantis’ water bill, which incorporates many aspects of legislation she unsuccessfully pushed last year.
“I think we’ve got all the bugs worked out of it,” she said, adding: “We’ve got to address our water quality. Until we get serious about addressing our water quality we’re never going to solve the problem with the algae bloom and all the issues that we’ve been having with it.”
Mayfield’s 91-page bill (SB 712) — dubbed the “Clean Waterways Act” — 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.
The legislation 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.
A new real-time water quality monitoring program is included in the legislation. And it revises the rules surrounding so-called Basin Management Action Plans, or BMAPS, which 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.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services would be required to inspect agriculture operations every two years to make sure their “best management practices” for reducing nutrient pollution are working.
Lastly, the bill creates a “wastewater grant program” to help fund projects that cut down on nutrient pollution.
Cost is the biggest obstacle to improving water quality. Homeowners with septic tanks, agriculture operations that spread fertilizer and local governments that operate sewer systems all could be on the hook for significant financial obligations if they are forced to stop polluting.
State programs designed to share some of those costs could soften the regulatory blow.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Republican egg farmer from the rural community of Trilby who is line to be Senate president, said he is particularly interested in helping homeowners get off septic tanks.
“The state’s got some responsibility here,” Simpson said. “We allowed this type of development. Just like we’ve spent billions of dollars putting reservoirs around Lake Okeechobee and northern Everglades restoration, we’re going to have to have a robust program that addresses septic systems.”
Florida lawmakers already have proven they’re willing to spend big money on environmental cleanup efforts. Everglades restoration is a prime example.
Whether the regulatory aspects of the legislation survive is another question.
Environmental regulation bills have a habit of stalling or starting off strong and being whittled down until they are toothless.
“Let’s see — no pun intended — how watered down it gets by end of session because unfortunately we saw some good ideas last year that just fizzled,” Webber said. “Last year — famously — was the year after that terrible summer and we didn’t get one substantial water quality bill passed the entire year even though there were plenty of good ideas.”