By Ryan Smart, David Cullen and Lisa Rinaman, clean-water advocates
The misnamed “Clean Waterways Act” has passed in both chambers of the Florida Legislature and is on its way to the Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
For more than a month the Florida Springs Council, Florida Waterkeepers, and Sierra Club have been asking Sen. Debbie Mayfield to “fix” SB 712. But rather than improve the bill and make it more protective of water quality, it was further weakened with the enthusiastic support of Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
On Wednesday “the Florida Legislature once again sided with Florida’s major polluters and landowners, against the interests of the public and our environment,” said Ryan Smart, Florida Springs Council Executive Director.
“Last year, we saw Democratic and Republican lawmakers overwhelmingly support legislation forcing environmentally and economically damaging toll roads on rural areas throughout Florida for the benefit of billionaire landowners. This year, those same legislators unanimously voted for SB 712, a ‘water quality bill’ written and approved by lobbyists for Florida’s major polluters,” he said.
“SB 712 does nothing to protect Florida’s springs, delays reaching water quality goals for decades, gives a free pass to many of Florida’s largest polluters, and prohibits local governments from trying to do better. Make no mistake, a yes vote on SB 712 is a vote for more pollution, not clean water,” Smart said.
“The land disposal of sewage sludge is fouling Florida waterways and fueling toxic blue green algae,” said Lisa Rinaman, of St. Johns Riverkeeper. “SB 712 weakens efforts to protect our waters by providing polluter loopholes that allow the dangerous dumping of concentrated human waste to further degrade our springs, our rivers, and our waters. This bill does nothing to address the fact that biosolids generated in South Florida are transported north where they are polluting the headwaters of the St. Johns River.”
Dave Cullen, lobbyist for the Sierra Club called the resulting legislation “more bait and switch from the Legislature.”
Cullen said legislators “can’t bring themselves to regulate agriculture’s manure and fertilizer, the major source of pollution to many basins, so they shift the entire conversation to septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants.
“After all, that way they get to wag their fingers at their current favorite scapegoat – local governments,” Cullen said. “It also allows them to put the cost of infrastructure onto taxpayers and ratepayers and at the same time completely avoid stopping the worst source of nonpoint pollution at the source.”
Jen Lomberk, of Matanzas Riverkeeper, had a similar reaction.
“This bill just doubles down on the broken system that got us into this water quality crisis in the first place,” Lomberk said. “Unless our elected officials are willing to stand up to polluters, we can expect to watch our waterways continue to decline.”
Cris Costello, Sierra Club Organizing Manager, said she’s seen a similar scenario in the Legislature.
“The last so-called ‘comprehensive’ water bill was passed in 2016, and the environmental community – 52 organizations and coalitions from across the state – asked then Gov. Rick Scott to veto it, because then, like today, the bill was only as strong as the state’s biggest polluters would allow,” Costello said.
“Did the 2016 bill, also praised by legislators in both chambers, get the job done? No. We are in worse shape now than we were before that bill passed,” she said. “This bill will be the same because it ignores the worst sources of pollution feeding harmful algae blooms, preempts local regulation, and deliberately remains dependent on a broken Basin Management Action Plan system.”
On Feb. 3, the Florida Springs Council, Florida Waterkeepers, and Sierra Club sent a letter to Mayfield and other legislators asking for 18 amendments to SB 712 that would address the most serious flaws of the bill. On Feb. 12, the same groups sent a 12-page letter to Florida’s Chief Science Officer Thomas K. Frazer that included a documented explanation of the bill’s many failures.
Mayfield, Valenstein, and Frazer all failed to refute any of our arguments and they continued to ignore the glaring inadequacies of this legislation.
Ryan Smart is the executive director of the Florida Springs Council. David Cullen is a lobbyist for the Sierra Club Florida. Lisa Rinaman is the St. Johns Riverkeeper.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.