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Senate Looks to Make Springs Plan Easier to Swallow

February 19, 2014 - 6:00pm

A$378.8 million measure to restore and protect Florida's natural springs is being revised to make it more appetizing for local governments.

The bill is expected to be formally introduced in the Senate by the first week of March.

The ambitious measure being pushed by a bipartisan group of senators -- and opposed by influential business groups -- will be stripped of language that would have required local governments to help fund work needed to improve the quality of water in springs-shed restoration projects.

Instead, the local governments will be encouraged to participate, as refusal to contribute will result in further delays to long-sought springs projects.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, one of the architects of the springs measure, said the new language will say that a local government would only have to contribute based on their civic responsibility.

The initial language in the draft of the bill was more of a "stick" that required local governments to pay for work identified by the state but not covered by the state, he said.

"We will use the carrot approach and of course the idea of moral suasion to do the right thing," Simmons said of the desire for local governments to help pay for restoration efforts.

Ryan Matthews, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, said the change may ease local governments' objections to the springs proposal.

"I think local government is always fearful they're going to get beaten with that stick," Matthews said.

Simmons has teamed on the proposal with Sens. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who are each from regions with large numbers of springs.

The proposal requires local governments within the state's most-prominent springs zones to enact ordinances on fertilizer use; wastewater treatment plants to reduce the amount of nitrogen released in treated water; and agricultural operations to follow "best-management practices."

Also, there would be a ban in those springs zones on new wastewater disposal systems, onsite sewage treatment systems and hazardous waste facilities, while water-management districts would face new rules on issuing use permits for drawing water from springs and aquifers.

The proposal also would require the state and local governments to cover the cost of connecting residential properties to sewer systems where older septic systems are determined to be impacting area waters.

A septic-tank measure to protect springs was approved by lawmakers in 2010, but was repealed two years later after opponents argued the law would result in increased expenses for impacted homeowners.

"This is a blueprint for the future, it really is," Simmons said. "It's how to deal with every one of the water projects collaboratively and collectively for the whole state."

The draft of the springs legislation has the state Department of Environmental Protection-staffed Acquisition and Restoration Council ranking the conditions of the state's natural springs, from worst to best. The council would also determine the work needed to improve each spring-shed, estimate the required funding and recommend how much the state would be willing to pay for the work using documentary-stamp tax revenues.

The doc stamps are fees already paid when real estate is sold.

The measure proposes setting aside about 20 percent of the money raised annually through the doc stamps for any work on the springs.

Simmons is confident that the proposal will get legislative support, although he expects the funding amount will not be as high as desired.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed $55 million next year for springs, a $45 million increase from the current year.

Meanwhile, the overall proposal could be in for a fight as the House may not tackle new water-related policies during the legislative session that starts March 4. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is deferring water issues to Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who has said he wants to make water a priority when he becomes speaker after this fall's elections.

Lobbyists for some of the state's leading business groups said they supported the intent of the measure, but continue to have reservations. Last month, nearly two dozen business groups, including the Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter indicating opposition to the plan.

They say the state should follow existing regulations regarding restoration efforts, while noting that water conditions should improve when new state-based water quality standards are allowed to be implemented from an agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called the bill "light" on business impacts, and his impression is that the business groups' stance is that "regardless of whether you're part of the problem or not, you shouldnt have to pay for it, the state should have to pay for it."

David Childs, lobbying for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, replied that there are already provisions in law that require polluters to pay for the cleanup.

"When you fly out of town you'll fly out over one of the most advanced wastewater treatment plants that the city of Tallahassee paid for. If you're driving down I-75, you'll pass a major project involving the city of Gainesville and others to restore Paynes Prairie," Childs said. "There are plenty of examples where those that are responsible for issues have ponied up and have done good projects that are going to benefit the environment."

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