2020 State Legislative Session Update: Mixed Results Abound
By Rob Moher | Conservancy of Southwest Florida President and CEO
The Conservancy entered the 60-day session with several important priorities, which ranged from fully funding the Florida Forever program to banning fracking and other similar oil well stimulation treatments, and addressing water quality issues throughout the Greater Everglades ecosystem.
Statewide Stormwater Standards
Though there were mixed results this session on our priorities, we can report in on a major win. After over a decade of advocacy to re-initiate the state’s stalled efforts to update stormwater standards, bills passed by the legislature require initiating rulemaking to incorporate the most recent scientific information no later than January 2021. Stormwater runoff is a major contributor of harmful pollutants to our waterways, and the standards are decades out of date, leading to continued degradation of our water quality as the state’s population has grown over the years. If the bill becomes law, our advocacy will focus on ensuring the rules are strengthened and improved to make certain that development is adequately capturing and treating its polluted runoff.
Despite this good news, the water quality reform bill (SB712/HB1343) many expected the legislature to pass this session was considerably weakened. Certain pollution sources like stormwater, wastewater, and septic tanks were dealt with either extensively, or at least in a proactive manner. Although, notably, a septic tank inspection requirement was not included, which is a necessary provision to fully assess and target septic tank pollution. Unfortunately, one of the greatest contributors (agriculture) to nutrient pollution to the Caloosahatchee, Lake Okeechobee, and many other waterbodies like Florida’s springs, was let almost entirely off the hook — keeping it business as usual for agriculture. Agriculture, instead of being required to store and treat runoff to the extent it will help achieve water quality goals, will only be potentially asked to participate in a cost-share program where public funds will be utilized to help treat agricultural pollution, should Best Management Practices (BMPs) be deemed ineffective. This, despite documentation that has shown BMPs only remove a small fraction of the nutrient pollution generated.
While the legislation included several positive steps towards addressing pollution sources (such as the stormwater rulemaking update), the final bill language did not fulfill the need for a truly comprehensive and effective overhaul of water policy in Florida, which is why the Conservancy will continue to be engaged and focused on future efforts (both rulemaking and legislation) that will ensure all pollution sources are accountable for their impacts to our precious water resources.
Ban on Fracking and Fracking-Like Treatments
The session also disappointed as another year went by without the legislature banning the use of hydraulic fracturing and fracking-like activities in the state. The Conservancy supported strong ban bills SB200 and HB547 introduced in the Senate by Senator Montford and in the House by Representative Fitzenhagen of Fort Myers. These bills would have banned all forms of advanced well stimulation treatments, including hydraulic and acid fracturing, as well as low-pressure matrix acidizing. However, lacking support from both legislative and administrative leadership, these bills both died without much discussion.
The time to ban these practices is now. Companies are on the hunt for oil reserves, as evidenced by the destruction of the Big Cypress National Preserve where Burnett Oil has searched tens of thousands of acres, created hundreds of miles of ruts, and cut down over 400 ancient cypress trees.
It is now up to Governor DeSantis and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to ensure that all fracking-like operations — which pose a threat to our water resources and human health — are banned.
At the outset of this legislative session, over one hundred businesses and organizations united with one common message: Fully Fund Florida Forever. Recent allocations, which have been capped at $100 million, are not sufficient to meet Florida’s environmental needs.
The State’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research underscored this message when they reported a new estimate to a Florida senate committee: at current expenditure rates, it will take the State 370 years to acquire its own listed priority projects. This is troublesome given we are losing natural and working lands at a rate equivalent to ten acres an hour. Stated simply, if we do not ramp up the acquisition of lands necessary to save species like the Florida panther quickly — we will lose these species.
The Conservancy continues to advocate for legislation dedicating 40% of 2014’s Amendment One proceeds to the Florida Forever Trust Fund. This year, we’d hoped to see approximately $320 million allocated to the Florida Forever land conservation program.
We were pleased to see Florida Forever funding levels rise from a near-historic low last year up to $100 million this election year. However, the Legislature remained unwilling to increase funding beyond the $100 million threshold, continuing a pace that will ultimately result in losing the race against unbridled development.
The Conservancy will continue to fight to realize the promise of 2014’s Water and Land Conservation Constitutional Amendment: full funding for Florida Forever.
Water Quality and Everglades Funding Priorities
In addition to the stormwater rulemaking priority win, the Conservancy’s water-related 2020 legislative priorities included: funding requests for increased water quality monitoring to target clean-up efforts; and substantial funding to keep the C-43 Reservoir construction on track — an important Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) project to provide freshwater flows during the dry season to the Caloosahatchee estuary and store water from Lake Okeechobee and the river’s watershed during the rainy season.
We are pleased to report that water quality project funding, Everglades restoration, and other critical initiatives received significant allocations in the state budget this year, including: $169.9 million for CERP (including the C-43 Reservoir), $64 million for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, $25 million for water quality projects that help meet water quality goals (i.e., Total Maximum Daily Loads — TMDLs), $25 million in wastewater and stormwater grants, $10.8 million for water quality enhancement and accountability, including the Blue-Green Algae Task Force and water quality monitoring.
These robust funding numbers are worth celebrating in this year’s budget, as water quality improvements and Everglades Restoration are dependent on long term consistent investments to keep pollution clean-up efforts and restoration projects focused and on track. However, in a surprise move, a provision was added to the budget’s implementing legislation intended to hamstring the South Florida Water Management District’s efforts to implement a pollution source control program in the Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee, and St. Lucie watersheds. Like many other outcomes of this legislative session — the end results for water and Everglades, even within the budgetary process, were a mixed bag of significant wins and last-minute setbacks.
On a Final Note
We are living in unprecedented times. Given new financial needs related to the Covid-19 crisis, we anticipate the Florida Legislature will revisit its adopted budget in the near future. The Conservancy will be monitoring for any potential budget changes related to our priorities.