Florida Legislature Tackles Comprehensive Water Policy Update

Water legislation moving through the Florida Legislature will greatly reshape and modernize water management policies in Florida. Across the state, there are a wide array of issues – too much surface water in some areas, juxtaposed by not enough drinking water for our growing population. And, the water quality issues impacting some springs and estuaries.

The hope from all viewpoints is that legislators will create a workable plan to assure adequate water for farmers, drinking water for our growing population, and protect the natural environment that is so important to our nearly 20 million residents and the nearly 100 million annual visitors that power a significant portion of our economy. If we are to preserve the quality of life and support our economy now and into the future, we must strike that perfect balance.

The good news is that Florida has abundant water. Only a handful of states exceed the approximately 55 inches of annual rainfall Florida receives. Our challenge is to re-plumb the drainage systems built last century to keep that water from flowing so efficiently into estuaries and eventually to the ocean.  These discharges harm the saline environment of our estuaries and can adversely affect reefs and other natural systems in the ocean. Capturing and storing this water will also reduce nutrients in our surface and groundwater before they cause imbalances in the water quality of our springs, estuaries and other significant water bodies. It also helps restore a more natural flow .

Like any big piece of major policy revision, the House bill is almost 100 pages and tackles a wide array of unique regional water quality and quantity issues, as well as some statewide issues. HB 7003 passed the House on a bi-partisan, 109-6 vote. The Senate bill is less expansive and emphasizes dramatic action to improve water quality in impaired springs. Key legislators are optimistic that the two houses will be able to craft a bill that addresses both their priorities which they can send to the Governor before the 2015 Legislative Session concludes, sine die, on May 1. The allocation of the State’s financial resources is an all-important corollary to the policy decisions under consideration.

Here are the key issues to watch:

Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI). The House bill directs water management districts to implement a water management plan for this region, which includes the booming Greater Orlando area. There is agreement that coordinated, regional planning is essential to sustain our drinking water, though there will be much debate about the details. After fighting the water wars a few decades ago, the Tampa Bay area has shown the rest of the state what success looks like in implementing a viable water supply plan that relies on diverse water supply from surface and ground water, as well as desalinization, so we know this can be done with sufficient political will. There are projects in the CFWI with super regional importance that help address the water issues of adjacent regions as well. One example is the re-establishment of flow to the Upper St. Johns River so that it is not discharged to the Indian River Lagoon.

Springs protection. The current version of the Senate bill requires the establishment of spring protection zones with limits on septic tank, stormwater and agricultural discharges. Within those zones, the bill requires heightened scrutiny for some activities and the setting of interim minimum flows and levels (MFLs) by January 2016, as well as recovery and prevention strategies for those springs by July 1, 2017.  Rather than establish new springshed zones, the House bill uses the existing MFL mechanism in law and requires expeditious development of MFLs for all first and second magnitude springs. It also utilizes the existing mechanism of best management practices (BMPs) for agriculture in springsheds. The House also requires cleanup plans to be in place for certain significant springs designated as Outstanding Florida Springs by 2018.

The BMPs currently implemented aren’t necessarily expensive, and some rely on natural and common sense nutrient removal strategies that most farmers follow as good business practices. Still, BMPs always make farmers nervous, because they worry about unfunded mandates that could impose additional costs on their operations reducing their competiveness. BMPs are continuously examined for effectiveness and can be modified as needed based on scientific data. The protection of springs often prompts an emotional debate, and the complex science of groundwater movement makes it difficult to reach a consensus on measures to restore flow and decrease pollutants. There is much that we don’t understand about a system of underground rivers that we can’t see. A flexible approach that allows for monitoring and mid-course corrections may yield the best long-term results.

In the past, some proposals addressed spring protection by prohibiting all new agricultural activity within certain springs’ watersheds. That overreaction isn’t science-based or necessary, and it’s an example of how the debate over water can easily become polarizing and counterproductive. We must have a strong agricultural economy, just as we need clean, free-flowing springs and drinking water.

Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. The House bill also continues to rely on best management practices’ incentives to reduce phosphorous discharges with the disincentive for those not involved in the BMP program of extensive monitoring. The House bill adds DEP and the water management districts to the FDACS BMP reevaluation process. Agriculture in the EAA and Lake Okeechobee area have great enrollment in the BMP program. The Senate appears satisfied to leave the existing system in place.

Some want the state to exercise its option to purchase valuable U.S. Sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to be used as a reservoir to store water and siphon away pollutants. Others say the land isn’t needed as part of the Lake Okeechobee cleanup, and the House bill doesn’t provide for the purchase. The recently published UF Water Institute Final Report recommends that this acquisition be considered, but it also notes that there are many projects currently under way from the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to the Indian River Lagoon Plan which show great promise in addressing these issues that need to be implemented as soon as possible.

Amendment One expenditures. Florida voters overwhelmingly (3 to 1) passed a constitutional amendment in November 2014 that sets aside one-third of the excise tax on documents for environmental and conservation purposes. The amendment leaves it to the Legislature to decide how to spend the funds, which are anticipated to be at least $600 million in the coming fiscal year. The money can be used for anything from acquiring land for conservation to cleaning up streams and springs. Expect the Amendment One expenditures to influence the course of the water legislation, because anything the Legislature does will have a price tag. These monies are not new revenues, but rather a reallocation of existing funds so this source of funding will be less available for other traditional users, such as transportation, housing and beach funding.   Of course, the Legislature can allocate general revenue to make up for shifts, so the budgetary choices are myriad.

We’ll use our new water blog to unravel the details of some of these proposals as the debate crystalizes. We believe that the Legislature must find solutions, albeit with some compromises, that work for everyone. There can be no losers in water policy if we’re to sustain our economy and environment.

About the Author:

Michael D. Minton is a shareholder and chair of Dean Mead’s Agribusiness industry team. He represents family businesses with an emphasis on generationally-owned agricultural businesses. He assists with their organizational structure, federal income, estate and gift tax planning, and business succession planning. He is vice-chair of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, a member of the Solutions Committee of the Central Florida Water Initiative and a past vice-chair of the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District. He may be reached at (772) 464-7700 or by email at mminton@www.deanmead.com.