Robert Knight: Law preserves status quo for polluters

Dr. Robert Knight of Florida Springs Institute and member of the OSFR Advisory  Board has published the following article in the Gainesville SunScroll

Mullet swim along the algae-covered bottom of Manatee Springs in Chiefland. (Brad McClenny/Staff photographer)

Robert Knight: Law preserves status quo for polluters

By Robert Knight
Special to The Sun

Published: Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2016 at 5:17 p.m.

Dr. Bob Knight

Have you noticed that many of Florida’s waterways are becoming more polluted with every passing year? These formerly pristine natural resources include Atlantic beaches, the Gulf of Mexico, the Indian River Lagoon, Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie River, the Caloosahatchee River, the Rainbow River, the Suwannee River, the St. Johns River and the Apalachicola River, just to name a few.

Many of Florida’s most treasured waters are suffering from increasing pollution due to the discharge of nutrients, trace metals and organic compounds that are toxic to aquatic life. The inevitable results of poisoning these waters are harmful algal blooms, red tide, closed springs and beaches, declining fisheries, and diminished recreational and commercial opportunities.

This pollution is often the result of insufficient enforcement of environmental laws passed by previous Florida legislatures. Restoring these polluted waters will ultimately cost Florida taxpayers billions of dollars and setback the state’s economic recovery.

The Water Resources Protection Act of 1973 gave Florida, at least on the books, one of the strongest tools in the nation for protecting surface water and groundwater. But a law is like any other tool: It is only effective when it is used. What good is a law against theft if police and judges do not consistently enforce it? What good are water quality standards that continue to be exceeded after more than 40 years on the books?

Laws that are judiciously enforced can be an effective deterrent against inappropriate behaviors. Laws that are purposely vague, full of loopholes and inconsistently enforced are nothing more than a smoke screen covering up unacceptable activities.

This month, Florida’s Legislature passed the 2016 Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act and Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law. This new law is intended by its principal authors to preserve the status quo in the face of increasingly obvious water quality impairments. Virtually the entire Florida Legislature from both political parties (with the notable exceptions of Reprs. Mark Pafford and Jose Javier Rodriguez — thank you for your clear-sighted courage!), put their names on this new bill.

Every word in the bill was written or supported by lobbyists working for special interests who profit from the misuse of Florida’s waters. It is not surprising that the Associated Industries of Florida and its member organizations who paid those lobbyists had high praise for this bill.

It is also not surprising that environmental organizations that are most active in their support of clean water and preservation of natural ecosystems — the Florida Springs Council, the Sierra Club and more than 100 other environmental groups — opposed this bad water bill and called on Scott to veto it. It is disappointing that two of the state’s largest and most influential environmental organizations — The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Florida — supported this poisoned water bill.

Like a piece of poisoned candy wrapped in shiny paper, this year’s water bill gives the appearance of increased protection of water resources while retaining the alphabet soup of ineffective regulations (TMDLs, BMAPs, MFLs and BMPs) that have allowed Florida’s water quality to deteriorate to today’s low levels. These water issues could have been properly addressed and set on a path to recovery by a water bill that included just a few strong and enforceable measures, including universal water use fees, a tax on fertilizer use, and improved management of human and animal wastewater.

The fact that nearly all Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature supported this year’s bad water bill should be a wake-up call to Florida’s voters who care about a cleaner water future. Your elected representatives are looking out for the best interests of the home builders, agri-chemical companies, the electric power industry, poultry and dairy farmers, and those engineers and consultants who profit from the accelerating pace of agricultural and urban development.

If you want those corporations to make a fast profit more than you wish to drink clean water, enjoy a clean spring, river or beach, and benefit from a sustainable economy, then you should keep on voting the way you have been. But if you think it is short-sighted to poison Florida’s waters for the financial benefit of the few, then in November you should un-elect the legislators who supported these bills.

— Robert Knight is an environmental scientist, the director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute and the author of “Silenced Springs – Moving from Tragedy to Hope.”

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