Environmental groups worry that the legislation is not strong enough to fix Florida’s water quality issues, but lawmakers say it is a substantial improvement

Water quality legislation pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to pass the Florida Senate, but many environmental advocates worry that the bill is not aggressive enough to have much of an impact.


Senate Bill 712 — dubbed the Clean Waterways Act — cleared its final committee Thursday and now heads to the Senate floor.


The bill is a response to environmental problems that have plagued the state in recent years, from toxic blue-green algae in estuaries connected to Lake Okeechobee to red tide and algae-choked springs.


Lawmakers are trying to reduce the amount of excess nutrients that flow into waterways and feed the algae blooms, and the legislation is notable for pushing new environmental regulations, something the GOP-controlled Legislature has long been wary of.


"This legislation is one of the largest steps forward I’ve seen in the last decade," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein told lawmakers Thursday.


But a steady stream of speakers complained that the bill — while well intentioned and largely an improvement on the status quo — is too weak to spark a substantial improvement in water quality. They were especially concerned that not enough is being done to regulate nutrients that leech from farms in the form of excess fertilizer.


"The proposed legislation is toothless," said Michael Roth, president of the environmental group Our Santa Fe River.


Roth and many other speakers came to the committee hearing wearing blue buttons that read: "Fix 712." They worried that the bill’s proposed solutions do not match the enormity of Florida’s water pollution problems.


"If this bill is passed at the present time, it will make DEP a little more complacent thinking they’ve produced a sufficient bill and it won’t truly fix our water situation," said Burt Eno, president of Rainbow River Conservation, adding: "We have a very serious water problem."


But a number of lawmakers argued that the bill is a substantial improvement on current law.


"This is very, very meaningful legislation that is going to have a lasting positive impact on the water quality in our state," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.


The legislation sponsored by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, is a behemoth that encompasses a wide range of water issues. It grew larger Thursday when Mayfield added on language from a number of other environmental proposals.


Included in the bill are changes to how the state approaches everything from septic tanks to municipal wastewater systems and stormwater management. An amendment approved Thursday also added provisions that make it harder to get a permit for bottling spring water and increase fines for various environmental violations.


And while environmental advocates aren’t happy with the rules surrounding agriculture, the industry does face some new regulations under the bill. Farmers must keep fertilizer records and submit to inspections every two years to ensure they’re complying with best management practices.


"There’s not a single thing in this bill that’s a step backwards; they’re all a step forward," Valenstein said.


Mayfield said she tried to incorporate suggestions from environmental groups.


The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have put forward a number of proposed amendments. Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said Thursday that Mayfield incorporated some of the group’s ideas "but in ways we believe still leave significant wiggle room for mischief."


Cullen said he hopes the legislation will be amended further before it is voted on by the full Senate. But when questioned by Sen. David Simmons, Cullen conceded that there are aspects of the bill — such as how it addresses wastewater problems — that the group is happy with.


"We’ve put our heart and soul of trying to get a balance of something we can pass to get us started in the right direction," Mayfield said.


The legislation moves oversight of septic tanks from the state Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection. Valenstein called the shift "monumental" because it means septic tanks would be regulated to control their environmental impacts, not just their health impacts.


The bill also directs DEP to adopt rules for where septic tanks can be located, develop updated stormwater rules, new rules to limit leaks from underground sewer pipes and new rules for managing the application of biosolids, or human waste that is used as fertilizer. Municipalities would be required to regularly inspect sewer lines to look for faulty pipes.


Mayfield has highlighted revisions to rules surrounding so-called Basin Management Action Plans as a major aspect of the bill that make it "a huge step" toward improving water quality. The BMAPs are legally enforceable blueprints for reducing pollution in watersheds throughout the state.


In watersheds where septic tanks or sewer systems are contributing more than 20% of the nutrient pollution, or in areas where septic and sewer improvements are deemed necessary to reach pollution reduction goals, the BMAPs would have to include "remediation plans" to cut pollution from these sources.


Local governments would be required to put forward new wastewater infrastructure projects, likely at a significant cost. The legislation creates a new "wastewater grant program" to help cover those costs.