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Senate passes revamped water bill

a group of protesters outside the Florida Capitol to protest a proposed water bill
Jim Turner
/
News Service of Florida
Critics of a Senate bill on water issues in South Florida rallied Thursday outside the Capitol.

With a key lawmaker saying he wanted to clarify and counter “purposeful misinformation,” the Senate on Thursday changed a controversial measure that critics said could affect Everglades restoration projects.

The measure (SB 2508) had drawn opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis and critics such as fishing guides who raced to the Capitol to appear in the Senate gallery. A leader of one group said the changes removed the “worst of the worst” in a bill that opponents argued was being rammed through the legislative process.

The Senate voted 37-2 to approve the amended proposal, which Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, said now “plainly states” lawmakers aren’t revising Lake Okeechobee water release schedules. Also, he said they weren’t cutting funds for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, which the Legislature approved in 2017 to reduce toxic algae outbreaks in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and to direct water south through the Everglades.

“Quite frankly, been a lot of truth said,” said Albritton, who chairs the Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee. “But flipside, also been a lot of not true said. Been a lot of half-truths said.”

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said in an email Thursday the changes were being reviewed and that “the governor remains committed to protecting the Everglades.”

The environmental measure, known as a conforming bill, is tied to the Senate’s proposed $108.6 billion budget (SB 5001) for the 2022-2023 fiscal year. The Senate on Thursday approved the proposed budget and related bills, setting them up for upcoming negotiations with the House.

The introduction of the conforming bill less than two weeks ago set off alarms among environmental, boating and fishing groups across South Florida.

Critics said the bill would eliminate or threaten money for the massive reservoir. Also they said it would require the South Florida Water Management District to back providing more water to agriculture users, including sugarcane growers, when seeking state funding for restoration efforts. They also raised concerns about wetlands permitting and an expedited permitting process.

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, called it positive that the changes Thursday “stripped out” a requirement for the district to certify water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which would have altered two years of work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about water releases into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

“The sugar industry is going to get its share of water just as much as the Everglades, and the coasts are going to see less discharges,” Eikenberg said. “That plan is working. Don't tinker with it. And this legislation was going to do that.”

Daniel Andrews, a fishing guide from Fort Myers who is a co-founder of the group Captains for Clean Water, said Thursday the amendments removed “the worst of the worst” from the legislation.

“We still have a couple of concerns with the legislation. However, we are getting word that maybe that's something that they are looking at,” Andrews said during a gathering outside the Capitol. “And we're holding out for that. And we've got our fingers crossed. But overall, the amount of people that engaged on this issue was unlike anything we've seen in the six-year history of governance for clean water. And we sent a very strong message: If the folks in these buildings are going to mess around the budget process and try to ram through these major policy issues, we'll stand up. We'll get loud. And every time we come up here, we're gonna bring three or four friends.”

Eikenberg described remaining issues as “little issues” that may be removed during budget negotiations with the House, which approved its proposed $105.3 billion budget Wednesday. The House did not have a conforming bill similar to the Senate’s environmental package.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat who voted against the bill, objected to mitigation credits tied to the proposed expedited permit review process.

“The permitting processes have been slow. We’ve heard that,” Farmer said. “Now we've got this fast-pass system, which, you know, just causes me some pause and some concern.”

Last Thursday, DeSantis injected himself into the debate by rejecting the initial version of the bill and saying the state needs to prioritize money for the $1.9 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

After DeSantis’ criticism, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, defended the bill, issuing a statement that said the proposal won’t “reverse or hinder” funding for Everglades restoration and the reservoir.

Simpson, who is running for state agriculture commissioner this year, has questioned the reservoir in the past, while advocating for measures to clean South Florida waters through aquifer storage and recovery wells north of Lake Okeechobee.

When Albritton released the amendment Wednesday, he said in a news release that the intent was to address “purposeful misinformation on the intent and effect on Senate Bill 2508.”

“The bill addresses the recommendations that the (water management) district, as representative for the state, should make to the federal government on our behalf. If the SFWMD is appropriately advocating for our state water rights in their recommendation to the federal government, then there is absolutely nothing to worry about," Albritton said in the release. "If they aren’t, we need to know that, because we are appropriating hundreds of millions of Floridians taxpayer dollars to these projects.”

The amendment made clear the South Florida Water Management District is only required to provide recommendations to the federal government consistent with current district programs and plans, the Senate news release said.

Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.