Janet Bowman, The Nature Conservancy in Florida
Florida’s lawmakers deserve kudos for addressing some of the state’s environmental problems, but they missed some opportunities too.
In a continuation of the trend since Gov. Ron DeSantis took office, the Legislature focused on water quality, and began discussion of climate change policy, which is being discussed more and more among representatives on both sides of the aisle.
With generous funding approved for land acquisition, Everglades restoration, water resource protection, and wastewater infrastructure, the Legislature created a narrow window of opportunity to address some of our most pressing water-related challenges.
The “Clean Waterways Act” reforms the regulatory framework for protecting water quality. It also begins to address the impacts of sea-level rise. We applaud the Legislature for addressing both issues.
What we need now is aggressive implementation of water quality rules and consideration of the effects of sea-level rise and climate on water resource protection. Legislators must take bold measures to restore the water quality of Florida springs, lakes and estuaries and address the effects of climate change on as coral reefs and other natural systems.
The Clean Waterways Act (Senate Bill 712) was a major priority for the session and has the potential to significantly improve our environment.
The bill provides a framework for implementing many of the recommendations of the Blue Green Algae Task Force. It also moves the regulation of septic tanks from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Regulation, requires DEP to adopt rules governing the potable use of reclaimed water, stormwater treatment and biosolid application, and requires utilities to address overflows and pipe leakages.
Now the state needs to walk the talk. The bill’s impact will depend on the strength and timeliness of the rulemaking and implementation effort. Several of the rules, including the biosolids rule, will need legislative ratification before they become effective.
So, in some instances, implementation won’t take effect for several years. The Nature Conservancy believes that to effectively protect our waterways, the Legislature needs to consider the future effects of sea-level rise for septic tank siting, stormwater treatment and prevention of infiltration and leaking pipes.
Last fall, at the ceremony designating him the next House Speaker, Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) said that the stigma of openly addressing climate action at the Florida Legislature has passed: “We need to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea-level rise’.”
This session provides some evidence of an increased willingness to tackle climate issues.
Senate Bill 178 by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) and Rep. Vance Aloupis (R-Miami), which passed unanimously in both chambers, requires that sea-level rise studies be conducted before buildings financed with public money can be constructed.
Also, Senate Bill 7018 directs the Florida Department of Transportation to coordinate, develop, and recommend a master plan for electric vehicle charging stations on highways controlled by the state.
The Florida Senate passed a resolution urging the Legislature to “adopt policies focusing on resiliency efforts and appropriate infrastructure which prepare Florida for the environmental and economic impact of climate change, sea-level rise, and flooding.”
Despite the progress during the 2020 session, legislators failed on one front. They defeated Senate Bill 7016, which would have created a much-needed Statewide Office of Resiliency and authorized the adoption of uniform sea-level rise projections to be used by state agencies in their planning and programs.
Florida’s leaders need to do more than just acknowledge challenges such as climate change and sea-level rise; they need to place them at the center of the decision-making process.
Looking forward to the 2021 session, we strongly believe the Legislature should authorize completion of a State Climate Plan that includes:
- a greenhouse gas inventory
- renewable energy, electrification of transportation and other strategies for reducing carbon emissions
- a statewide sea-level vulnerability study
- actions for addressing sea-level rise in state investment, planning and permitting actions.
At a meeting of the Committee on Infrastructure and Security on sea-level rise, Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) said: “We lost a decade” in addressing climate change. Now Florida policymakers — and Floridians at large — need to focus on making up for that lost time.
Janet Bowman is the Senior Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
“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.