Water bill raises red flag for environmentalists

03/31/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Environmentalists say a bill that the Florida House of Representatives is slated to take up next week may adversely impact Florida’s water resources. House Bill 1109, sponsored by Republican Rep. Trudi Williams of Fort Myers, amends state law to streamline the way the state deals with the water supply. But Dee Layne, executive director of the Coalition 4 Responsible Growth, says she smells a rat.

The bill’s intent originally, and in what she’s saying is, what it’s doing, is taking the statutes we have now under the water statutes, and reorganizing all the water supply things in one place under a new Part 7 in the water statute.

Layne says that, while the bill doesn’t include any substantive changes to water policy, there is one problem.

At the very beginning of the bill, and of this section, the legislative intent is laid out. And this intent basically says that we will supply water for the present and future development needs of the state.

But Layne said something is missing from that language.

*The problem is, that’s only half of the statute of legislative intent that is now in effect. So she didn’t pull over all the statutes in their entirety. In the legislative intent, she only pulled one section out of it. What she left out of her intent was the connection that was made years ago between water and land use and the environment, which basically said you will watch and protect the environment; you will protect the public health, safety and welfare; and you will supply water. Well, with the other two gone, all we’re down to now is “supply water.”*

Not everyone agrees. Dianna Ferguson is a legislative staff attorney with the Florida Association of Counties. She says the bill does not include any substantive changes to state water policy, and that environment and public health are addressed in the intent of the overall statute.

The intent’s language in particular that was perceived to be missing, the way that the bill is drafted, it would still appear in the beginning of the chapter, and it would apply throughout the entire chapter. So at least as it pertains to that specific concern, I’m not seeing it.

Ferguson says this has been attempted in previous legislative sessions, and was a means of streamlining the policy.

Chapter 373 has never been particularly user-friendly, in terms of water supply, because the provisions are sort of sprinkled throughout, and you have to read them all in conjunction with one another to really figure out the regulatory scheme. So the idea was, let’s put it all together, so that there’s one place everyone can go to look for water supplies.

She says most people are concerned with something else. In previous years, Ferguson says, proposed changes may have affected local entitlements to water resources.

In the past, there have been concerns raised about whether certain amendments might try to readdress the local-sources-first policy, or the public-interest test itself, but we haven’t seen anything like that this year so far.

But Dee Layne of the Coalition 4 Responsible Growth doesn’t buy the argument that providing for environmental protection in previously-written chapters will safeguard Florida’s water supply.

When in the bill itself there are environmental things that are in each little section. But when you start out a section, you lay the groundwork for the focus that you use for the rest of that section in your legislative intent. And by only focusing on supplying the water, not focusing on also protecting the environment, and public health and safety, you change the focus. And that focus is going to ultimately cause a lot of damage in this state. A lot of damage.

Robin Felix, a spokesperson for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, says that while she doesn’t share Layne’s concern, any time a bill like House Bill 1109 goes onto the floor, it warrants close scrutiny.

You do open up an entire section of Florida law. You know, making some minor tweaks or revisions could have some unintended consequences. So that would be, you know, our real only concern.

House Bill 1109 may get its second reading next week. Layne says that interested members of the public can go to C4RG.com for more information about this bill as well as others that with which the environmental group is taking interest.

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Ms. Williams from Fort Myers hails from the "creosote zone", the USACE project at the Franklin Lock and Dam.There, the Corps has jeopardized one third of the county's fresh water supply with one of the most poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals known to man (and the US Gov't).