Legislative Session closes, water quality issues across the state left on the back burner

May 4, 2021

Session Closed

The Florida Legislature, which meets for 60 days each year, concluded its 2021 Session on Friday, April 30th, but not before agreeing on a record $101.5 billion budget and passing a series of bills aimed at further restricting local government control in favor of state control.

Of the 3,140 bills filed by the 120 House members and 40 Senators, only 275 bills actually passed both chambers, some containing portions of bills previously thought dead, such as the infamous “seaport preemption” bill. This bill—which overturns the Key West referendum limiting the size of cruise ships—was attached to the Transportation bill at the last minute and passed.

In terms of water quality, the session wasn’t all bad, but it was mostly bad. There was increased funding for water quality—a great start to addressing our issues—but funding is only part of the solution, and we also need new legislation that improves Florida’s waters if we’re going to see real change going forward. Unfortunately, this year, that kind of policy was hard to come by.

A major issue with this session was the denial of public access to the capitol, lawmakers, and their staff due to COVID-19 restrictions. These limitations made any attempt at effective input on unfavorable policy measures, such as the “right to farm” bill, impossible.

Back in February, just before the start of session, we identified the issues and bills most likely to have an impact on water quality that would be worth watching throughout session. A few more popped-up along the way, but now that Session is wrapped up, let’s break down the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

  • Over $600 million for Everglades Restoration in FY 2021-2022, continuing Governor Ron DeSantis’ 2019 pledge to fund Everglades restoration and the protection of Florida’s water resources.
  • HB 1177 creates the Biscayne Bay Commission as an advisory council within the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to serve as the official coordinating clearinghouse for all public policy and projects related to Biscayne Bay. HB 1177 also prohibits sewage facilities from disposing of waste into Biscayne Bay without providing advanced waste treatment.
  • $20 million in funding for Biscayne Bay.
  • $611 million for the Florida Resilient Grant Program.
  • $100 million for Piney Point clean-up.
  • SB 406/HB 209, the Big Cypress Basin legislation, was postponed. We’re pleased to report that Representative Adam Botana was able to work out an agreement with the SFWMD to will include Bonita Springs in the Big Cypress Basin.

The Bad

  • HB 1225/SB 1522 would have implemented additional recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force. This represented an opportunity to pass policy that would benefit water quality and advance solutions to address pollution at its source. Unfortunately, it failed to pass, and considering the all-you-can-eat buffet of water-quality issues that were actively plaguing Florida throughout the session, it’s baffling that the legislature could choose to ignore this opportunity. While lawmakers were still in Tallahassee, toxic blue-green algae was already appearing on Lake Okeechobee, red tide was impacting Charlotte Harbor, Piney Point was discharging into Tampa Bay, and dead manatees and brown algae were being documented in the Indian River Lagoon. Despite these daily news reports, lawmakers failed to recognize and adopt the Task Force recommendations, which ironically, the legislature asked for and funded!
  • SB 2516, Water Storage North of Lake Okeechobee, did pass, which will expedite the development and implementation of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells. Why is this in the “bad” column? SB 2516 is a water supply project that provides very little—if any—reduction in discharges, and there are increasing uncertainties with large-scale implementation of ASR technology.

The Ugly

  • SB 88, or the “Right to Farm” bill, passed and was signed into law. While the bill had to do with access to the courts (in other words, who gets to sue an agricultural source polluter), it has the net effect of big agriculture not being held accountable for downstream and downwind effects of their pollution, labeling any lawsuit by an impacted person or entity a nuisance lawsuit. It’s not clear yet if the effects of SB 88 will negate the lawsuit filed against big sugar for their crop burning policies.
  • SB 1194, the Transportation bill, wound up containing the most egregious provision from the State Preemption of Seaport Regulations bill, which overturns the referendum passed overwhelmingly by the voters in the city of Key West to place restrictions on cruise ships that dock at the city’s port. Governor DeSantis has not yet signaled his intent to approve or veto SB 1194 considering the last-minute inclusion of the seaport preemption provision. Of all the issues we were following this session, the seaport preemption effort is probably the best example of how keeping the capitol closed to the public worked in favor of the legislators. Key West fishing guides and business owners travelled to Tallahassee to voice their concerns about the adverse impacts of the large cruise ships on Key West reefs, but even their virtual comments were cut short by the legislature, and ultimately fell on deaf ears.

What’s Next

With this Session in the rear-view, now begins the reality of what these bills—or lack thereof—will mean for our water. Although it’s great to see more funding go to restoration projects and water quality, the lack of significant, actionable policy that will address Florida’s many water quality issues is equally troubling.

It’s unclear exactly what it will take for the legislature to wake up to these issues, but one thing’s for sure, public pressure will be what creates the change. We’ll continue to demand that the state moves forward with policy that benefits our waterways, but we need your voice to amplify that demand. We have to stay vocal and continue to challenge our elected officials to prioritize our water quality—with that collective voice, we will see progress.