2021 Legislative Session prep: kicking off with DEP Secretary’s progress update on the Clean Waterways Act

January 16, 2021
Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources gears up for 2021 Florida Legislative Session

Well, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March is right around the corner, so you know what that means, right? It means, “A regular session of the Florida Legislature shall convene,” of course. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t your first guess, but the 2021 Legislative Session kicking off gets us excited nonetheless because it signals a season of opportunities to continue making meaningful policy progress for the protection of our water quality and natural resources.

Leading up to the session, which goes from March 2nd through April 30th, senate committees touch base in preparation for the ensuing 60 days of political collaboration. Earlier this week, one of those committees—the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources—gathered for the first time in 2021 to prepare for session.

One of the major focus areas of the meeting was Senate Bill (SB) 712—legislation comprised of a wide range of water quality protective provisions which Governor Ron DeSantis signed last June.

Also known as the Clean Waterways Act, SB 712 passed the Florida Legislature with bipartisan support, but it didn’t exactly incite overwhelming celebration within some of the environmental community, who were concerned that it didn’t go deep enough to protect Florida’s waters. However, we do embrace it as a success for water-quality progress—it may only be one step, but it’s still a step in the right direction.

Gov. DeSantis said it well back in June, “We have seen overwhelming support in our efforts to protect and conserve our waterways and natural resources, and while there is still plenty of work to be done, I look forward to building upon our recent successes.”

And that’s what is important to remember with SB 712; although it certainly represents progress, there’s still so much more to do, and we have to keep our hands on the throttle to continue to achieve more comprehensive change in the near future.

Senator Debbie Mayfield, who sponsored SB 712, agrees that there’s still plenty of opportunity for progress, saying in her opening remarks at this week’s meeting, “When we started this out […] we said this was the start of what we wanted to accomplish, and so there is a lot more that is going to need to be done with it.”

To provide an overview of SB 712 as well as an update on the progress of implementation since the bill’s passing, Noah Valenstein—Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)—gave a presentation at the meeting. He opened by saying:

“Last year, this legislature did some phenomenal work on environmental protection here in Florida. The passage of Senate Bill 712, the Clean Waterways Act, built off the idea that […] science needs to be at the head of everything we do, and that we need to discuss and challenge ourselves to do more now to protect the environment—and not to be afraid to discuss challenging issues and make progress on them. But, to make sure that we were always doing that with science in mind.”

Secretary Valenstein went on to discuss how that science-based approach led to the formation of the state’s Chief Science Officer and Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which kicked off the conversation about water-quality challenges and ultimately contributed to the legislation contained within SB 712.

Here are some of the highlights from the secretary’s SB 712 update:
  • Biosolids – A draft rule for regulating biosolids (solid organic matter recovered from sewage treatment processes which can be used as fertilizer) has been developed and is awaiting presentation to the Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC) for their approval. DEP anticipates the rule will be up for review and ratification by the legislature during this legislative session.
  • Onsite Sewage Program – Transfer of the Onsite Sewage Program (aka the Septic Tank Program) from the Department of Health (DOH) to DEP will occur by July 1st, 2021. This recognizes onsite sewage as a source of nutrients to our water systems, and it’s a step towards making sure those nutrients are not entering our waterways.
  • Sanitary Sewer Overflows – DEP now has additional authorities to collect information from utilities to make sure they are maintaining not only the wastewater utilities plants, but also collection systems for wastewater, such as pipes in the ground. It also requires utilities to have power contingency plans for pump stations, as power outages during hurricanes are recognized as one of the leading causes of sanitary sewer overflows.
  • Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) – July 1st, 2025 was established as the deadline for all wastewater facilities to stop discharge or meet AWT standards. Currently, 10 facilities do not meet AWT standards, three of which have internal timelines that will not meet the 2025 deadline: Mosquito Lagoon (Port Orange Wastewater Treatment Facility), City of Rockledge, and Ft. Pierce Utility Authority Water Reclamation Facility. However, DEP anticipates they will be able to work with those facilities to facilitate meeting the 2025 deadline.
  • Development of the Reuse Rule – The Reuse Rule stems from the concern over using Florida’s water resources most economically for all of Florida’s needs, and it discusses the potential to reuse wastewater for direct, potable water—a concept currently under consideration across the nation. However, DEP urged that we need to make sure we have the correct rules in place in order to provide the public with safe reused water. DEP is hopeful that they will have a draft rule available for review the beginning of the legislative session.
  • Development of the Stormwater Design and Operation Rule – Stormwater is another potential source of nutrients to water systems. SB 712 created a stormwater Technical Advisory Council (TAC) to provide assistance for new design standards for largely outdated stormwater infrastructures. Recommendations from the TAC and DEP include items the agency can take action on immediately as well as potential legislative changes.
  • BMAPs Septic Remediation and Wastewater Treatment Plans – The idea behind Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) is to ensure thoughtful planning and effective water quality restoration in areas that have impaired water bodies. SB 712 allowed DEP to apply new techniques from one BMAP, such as more extensive septic tank planning, to other BMAPs across the state that might also benefit. It also incorporated planning for when agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) are not effective enough in reducing the overall nutrient load on a particular basin. DEP can identify other projects to add to the BMAP in order to reach the overall goal for an impaired water body.

Committee Chairman, Senator Jason Brodeur, opened the meeting with some promising notions about this year’s potential, highlighting the committee’s composition and saying:

“One of the exciting things about this committee is the makeup of it; we’ve got the panhandle, we’ve got central-northern, we’ve got the northeast, we’ve got central Florida, and we’ve got parts of the south that are right in-and-around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades—our National Treasure. So, I think we are really well setup to tackle a lot of the challenges that come up over the next two years.”

We agree and look forward to seeing the Senate pass significant legislation to improve water quality in 2021. We’ll continue to challenge our lawmakers to research and implement science-based strategies to improve our natural resources and water quality.

SB 712 definitely marks progress in addressing the challenges to our waterways, like nutrient pollution, which can fuel harmful algal blooms, but it also highlights the importance of the work still to be done. The bill should be looked at as a win, but it’s really more of a battle victory—there’s still a war that we have to keep fighting every day.