One day after a Florida Senate committee approved a controversial water supply bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis slammed it as an attempt to circumvent the public process.
Critics say SB 2508 could dilute funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir and guarantee agriculture gets the irrigation water it wants to siphon off Lake Okeechobee. The bill also could harm Lake O and its connected estuaries by keeping the lake level higher in the dry winter season, reversing years of clean-water policy.
“Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark,” DeSantis said in a news statement Thursday.
Bill passes:Florida senate committee passes controversial water supply bill
Background:Could the bill jeopardize EAA reservoir, increase Lake O discharges?
Senate president:Wilton Simpson said EAA reservoir construction should stop
The EAA reservoir, one of DeSantis’ top priorities, is designed to curb Lake O discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers that can spark toxic algae blooms and kill oysters as well as seagrasses that starving manatees rely on for food.
“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on harmful reducing discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” DeSantis said in the news release. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson
Senate President Wilton Simpson fired back Thursday, specifically regarding criticism that lawmakers who filed the bill didn’t consult the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water resources for about 9 million Floridians.
“No senator has to check in with a state agency before filing a bill. I report to the people of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, not appointed bureaucrats,” said Simpson, a Republican egg farmer from Trilby who’s running for agriculture commissioner this year .
Simpson claimed the bill would protect the EAA reservoir funding, though in 2020, he said construction on the project should stop and his voting for it in 2017 was a “mistake.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor against DeSantis, took a shot at him and Simpson in a prepared statement released Thursday.
“I’d be happy to … work with them both on a solution that keeps our environment at the forefront of the discussion and not their egos,” she said.
SFWMD, Everglades, Lake O discharges
SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett called the bill an “affront” to the agency’s Everglades restoration responsibilities and said it is “basically holding the whole South Florida ecosystem restoration program hostage.”
The SFWMD board and staff outlined concerns about the bill during a meeting Thursday.
“It was surprising to learn that we had not even (been given) fair notice, but really no coming notice, that this was down the pike,” Vice Chair Scott Wagner said. “This was a situation where we were totally in the dark on a particular bill that relates directly to our operations.”
The bill is “upsetting the balance” the Army Corps struck among myriad stakeholders over the past three years as it wrote a new Lake O management plan for the next decade, called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).
The bill also could starve the thirsty Everglades of much-needed water during the dry winter season and drive Lake O’s level higher as the wet summer season begins, which increases the risk of discharges and toxic algae blooms to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
Wagner said the bill could force the SFWMD to make Lake O management recommendations to the Army Corps of Engineers under the looming threat of the Legislature withholding funding, which would diminish the agency’s credibility.
“When you ask for a recommendation to a restaurant and the person giving the recommendation is forced to take into consideration that they must like pasta and they must like pizza and they must like chicken Parmesan. Guess what? When somebody gets a recommendation for Italian, they just roll their eyes because they know that you’re forced to give it,” Wagner said. “And that’s exactly what’s happening here.”
Bipartisan opposition to the bill
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, filed the controversial bill Feb. 4, halfway into the session and in a way that ties it to the state budget, which makes it harder for the governor to veto it.
Albritton filed it as a “conforming bill,” which means it proposes changes to the state budget. That fast-tracked it past the typical motion process, meaning it skipped several committee stops, where lawmakers and the public could have vetted it.
The bill is drawing opposition across party lines.
“It’s not a good bill,” House Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, tweeted Thursday, saying she agreed with DeSantis’ sentiments. Eskamani filed a bill this year that would repeal a law that restricts legal action being taken by people affected by particle emissions from burning sugarcane fields’ post-harvest debris.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and Senate Appropriations Committee member, voted against the bill Wednesday, along with three Democrats.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill 16-4, despite emotional appeals from environmental advocates who drove to Tallahassee on short notice.
If the Senate approves the bill during a Feb. 17 hearing, the House and governor also would have to approve it before it would take effect.
Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Louis. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnesemail him at email@example.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.