Each year that we allow our Legislature to hold off on addressing our water problems, that is one more year of putting tons of nitrates into our rivers, one more year of drawing out millions of gallons of water from our constantly dropping aquifer. One more year of approaching the point of no return.
Most of our elected officials in Tallahassee have failed us miserably. It looks like only the voters can change this, and also most of the voters have failed miserably in realizing they have a problem.
Visual effects like the thick layers of algae and the tons of dead aquatic animals got the attention of a few, but the continued drawdown in the rest of Florida is catching no one’s eye.
A few bucks were allocated for symptoms but nothing to hit the problem of where the pollution is coming from. Our leaders are terrified to touch that issue.
Slight progress is being made on urban fertilizers, but from local leaders and not Tallahassee.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Promised legislative action on toxic algae fizzles
By Zac Anderson
19 at 10:52 AM Updated Apr 30, 2019 at 10:52 AM
With the session set to end on May 3, there seems to be little chance of enacting major new regulations on polluters.
A proliferation of toxic algae blooms 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.
With the session set to end on Friday, there seems to be little chance of enacting major new regulations on polluters. 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 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.”
Gruters also filed a bill that would fine municipalities for sewage spills or force them to invest in new infrastructure, while also notifying the public about spills.
Municipal sewage is a major source of pollution. A GateHouse Media analysis of state data found that 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater — including 370 million gallons that was completely untreated — spilled out of municipal collection and treatment systems across Florida over the last decade, with much of it migrating into waterways.
But Gruters’ sewage bill failed to clear all of its committee stops in the House and Senate.
“I think what’s happened is because there’s so much focus on this, people have tried to do too much and I think as a result it’s gotten too heavy,” Gruters said.
The House has incorporated a version of the public notification requirement — but not the tough penalties for sewage spills — into a broader bill that has adopted aspects of other environmental bills.
Yet while the omnibus House environmental bill is largely supported by environmental advocates, they say it falls far short of what’s needed to combat Florida’s severe water-quality problems.
“It’s very, very weak tea,” said Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen.
In addition to forcing municipalities to notify the public of sewage spills, the legislation (HB 973) transfers oversight of septic tanks from the state Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection, which presumably will be more interested in regulating septic tanks as environmental hazards instead of just human health risks.
Another component of the House bill seeks to identify gaps in water quality-monitoring and recommend solutions. And the legislation would create a “clean water grant program” to help local governments, water management districts, private wastewater facilities and homeowners pay for projects that reduce nutrient pollution.
The bill also mandates that the nutrient component of basin management action plans (BMAPs) — which are created to map out pollution reduction strategies in watersheds — include a separate plan for tackling nutrient pollution from wastewater collection and treatment facilities, and a separate plan for tackling septic tank pollution if septic tanks account for more than 20 percent of the “nonpoint source” nutrient pollution problem.
The wastewater and septic plans would be submitted to the governor and legislative leaders, along with funding recommendations for wastewater treatment improvements and septic-to-sewer conversions. But there are no penalties in the House bill for failing to make progress on the pollution reduction plans, leading environmental advocates to discount the measure as toothless. The bill’s sponsor argues it is still meaningful water-quality legislation.
“I think it’s a great piece of policy that would do a lot for our nutrient-loading with waterways,” said Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka.
A Senate version of the BMAP legislation (SB 1758) that failed to advance through its final committee would have established strict deadlines for local governments to reduce nutrient pollution from septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants in regions with a BMAP. It also established penalties for failing to meet the deadlines. Environmental advocates have expressed concern that the bill does not have more robust BMAP requirements for agriculture, but are still supportive of the measure.
Tough talk, no traction
Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council, said SB 1758 “is about as weak as you can get and still be a meaningful bill” but he supports it. He hopes the House passes HB 973 and the Senate takes it up and amends it to include the language in SB 1758.
“I can’t imagine they’re going to accept something as weak as (the House bill) and call it progress on water quality,” Smart said.
The House bill does put new restrictions on the spreading of biosolids — a byproduct of treating human waste — on land. The legislation bans spreading biosolids on any site that “interacts with the seasonal high ground water table.” The Senate unanimously passed a biosolids bill last week, one of the few water quality bills to advance in the chamber.
Payne said he spent all weekend working on his water quality bill as he tries to get it heard in the final week of session. He hopes to work a deal with the Senate on regulating biosolids and possibly going further on a broader water-quality bill.
“The last thing we want to do is pass a large piece of water policy in the later part of the session that’s not good for everyone,” Payne said. “But we know the impact of nutrient-loading on our water bodies and we have to continue to address that.”
The new biosolid rules are some of the stronger elements in the House bill, but for the most part environmental advocates are not impressed.
Despite tough talk early in the session about compelling polluters to clean up or face penalties, some of the toughest proposals failed to gain traction.
“Everything in there is positive steps, but it’s all the watered-down version of what some of the original bill sponsors would’ve liked to have seen,” state Rep. Margaret Good, D-Siesta Key, said of HB 973.
Many other water-quality measures never even garnered a hearing this year.
Good’s proposal to adopt a stronger statewide stormwater management rule was never heard, despite evidence the stormwater runoff is a major source of nutrient pollution. On the whole, lawmakers have not done enough to tackle the algae problem, Good said.
“I think our Legislature is failing Floridians with respect to the environment and water quality,” she said.
While tough new regulations may be a long shot this session, lawmakers plan to spend hundreds of millions on environmental remediation efforts in the 2019-2020 state budget.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, pointed to “where we are budgetwise in that area” to argue that lawmakers have been “aggressive” on environmental issues this session.
“I feel good about where those issues are going,” said Galvano, who has pushed for funding for Mote Marine Laboratory to develop red tide mitigation technologies.
Gov. Ron DeSantis made environmental funding a priority, and legislative leaders have largely acquiesced.
But environmental groups worry that spending money on clean-up without regulating one of the main culprits driving the algae problem — nutrient pollution — is shortsighted.
“They’re waiting until the horse is out of the barn and then trying to find ways to entice him back in,” Cullen said. “So it is not a good year for water quality.”