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Natural resource policy: 2019 Florida Legislative session recap
July 9, 2019

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The Florida Legislature gets high marks for passing a budget that provides significant funding for Everglades and water resources, delivering a stated priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Unfortunately, despite last year's devastating water crisis, no meaningful water quality or water pollution legislation passed despite 40 proposed water related bills.

BUDGET

The $91.1 billion budget was primed by DeSantis with a target of $625 million for Everglades restoration and water quality improvements. The Legislature exceeded that target passing $682 million. The budget breakdown included:

- $367.2 million for Everglades

- $100 million for springs ($50 million unspent from last year)

- $145 million for the C-43 reservoir

- $108 million for CEP/EAA reservoir

- $10.8 million for the blue-green algae task force

- $4.8 million for red tide research and mitigation

- $10 million for innovative technology to treat and remove algae

- $25 million cost share for local government to address septic and stormwater sources of pollution

- $500,000 for the city of Sanibel's Donax wastewater treatment plant

- $33 million for Florida Forever (no funding to Florida Communities Trust or Rural and Family Lands), far from last year's $100 million and the historic funding of $300 million that built our state's extraordinary, award-winning park and preserve system.

PASSED BUT VETOED

HB 771, the Plastic Straw Ban Preemption, was just one of an extraordinary number of state preemption bills considered by the Legislature this year. The straw ban bill was combined with a contaminated plastics and sunscreen bill. The bill that passed would have suspended existing bans passed by local governments like Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach until a study could be completed. This bill was an assault on local government's ability to address a real problem that local governments took positive action to address. Fortunately, the governor vetoed this ridiculous legislative action.

FAILED WATER QUALITY

No less than 40 bills were introduced that touched on some form of water quality improvement including septic tank inspections, biosolids management, fertilizer requirements, public health data and records management, environmental resource permitting rules, and waste water treatment and septic to sewer initiatives. Not one good water bill passed.

TAXPAYER DOLLARS MISSPENT

- Passed transportation

SB 7068, the Toll Road to Nowhere, Senate President Galvano's priority bill, passed and has been signed into law by DeSantis. The bill features three toll roads from Collier County to the Georgia state line where it dead ends. Georgia DOT officials were taken by surprise to find out about the bill from a reporter because this multi-billion dollar highway expansion will not connect to any existing road. This bill shifts critical funding from the state's general fund away from needed projects to these roads which will not be self-sustaining. In exchange they will result in long term, devastating impacts on Florida's environmentally and ecologically valuable conservation lands critical to water storage, cleaning and aquifer recharge. Watch for public meetings in the near future to take public comment.

- Passed growth management

HB 7103, a Community Development bill passed with a late filed amendments in the final hours of the session, without legislative staff analysis or public input. The bill significantly limits the ability of the public to hold local governments accountable on commitments to protect our natural resources by making the losing party automatically liable for the prevailing party's attorney fees. This will effectively end citizen enforcement of local comprehensive plans to prevent against environmental losses to wetlands and habitat. These provisions effectively eliminate citizen challenges and enforcement of local comprehensive plans, the only means left for Florida residents and taxpayers to enforce consistency with local comprehensive plans. Despite widespread opposition, the governor signed this bill on June 28.

- Failed fracking ban

The session started with a pair of comprehensive fracking ban bills sponsored by Sens. Bill Montford and Linda Stewart and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen. Leadership of both the House and Senate actively substituted incomplete, partial ban bills for the early-filed comprehensive ban bills. The partial ban bills do not address matrix acidizing, the key form of fracking practiced in and harmful to Florida's unique geology. Despite the governor's support of a fracking ban, none of the fracking ban bills advanced this year.

Catch your breath, we'll need to get back to work preparing for next year's session. Since 2020 will be an election year the Legislature has scheduled the annual session to begin two months early in January. This means committee meetings will begin this September.

GOOD NEWS

- Everglades Action Day mobilized your voices

Thank you to everyone who helped us achieve the 7th Annual Everglades Action Day in April. This year we brought our biggest group to meet with over 70 legislators and staff at the Florida Capitol.

- Everglades restoration

There is much better news on the Everglades front. President Donald Trump increased his Everglades budget from $63 million to the $200 million needed to make significant progress on the EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area, south of Lake Okeechobee) reservoir. Funding for the remainder of the Tamiami Trail project has also been committed with $60 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $40 million committed by the state. This fully funds the remaining work to elevate Tamiami Trail to allow water to flow south into Everglades National Park. The last 5.5 miles will be accelerated by the use of high span, pre-cast culverts instead of bridging. Work is ongoing to remove the old road under the current bridges to increase flows south.

- EAA reservoir

Progress has been accelerated on one of the most critical Everglades projects, the EAA reservoir. On June 5 the South Florida Water Management District submitted permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to clear, grub, and demuck 690 acres to begin site work on the state-owned land currently leased to Florida Crystals.

In a letter from Florida Crystals to the SFWMD on April 10 they stated, "The terms of the lease executed in November 2018 show it was designed to accelerate the project by giving the SFWMD early access to 560 acres of land, allowing the agency to begin site work The lease was also written to ensure that land will be available as needed and without delay for the EAA reservoir's construction. Florida Crystals is fully committed to ensuring the same timely and cooperative transition of the 16,158 acres of leased land for the EAA reservoir as was achieved with the A-1 FEB and the STA-1W expansion you have our commitment that, if construction of the reservoir is accelerated, we will transition land covered by this lease as needed by the SFWMD for construction of the EAA reservoir project."

On June 4 SFWMD Executive Director Bartlett responded " reaffirming Florida Crystals' commitment to ensure your Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) operations and leases are not an obstacle to the construction of the EAA Reservoir Project" and "that (the District) will pursue expediting every component of this Project."

The district anticipates permits and preparation work on the perimeter levee and canal will be complete by the end of 2019. Accelerating the work anticipates construction could begin in 18 months. The Army Corps estimates the 10,100-acre reservoir being built by the Army Corps of Engineers should be completed in about eight years. The SFWMD and the Corps are splitting the $1.8 billion cost of the project.

- C-43 treatment planned

Addressing one of the governor's commitments to tackle water quality, a working group has been formed to work on plans for a much-needed water quality treatment component for the C-43 reservoir (on the Caloosahatchee). The task force is composed of representatives of the city of Sanibel, Lee County, DEP, SFWMD and a contracted technical firm, J-Tech. Public meetings will be held to discuss and evaluate the best available science-based projects and select a project within 18 months. This is welcome progress as it has taken nearly two decades to get action on the need for this feature, despite it being the Prevention and Recovery Strategy for meeting the Caloosahatchee Minimum Flow and Level.

- Federal offshore oil drilling

Rep. Francis Rooney continues the fight for a permanent moratorium on offshore oil drilling off Florida's coast. He is the sponsor of H.R. 205, the Protecting and Securing Florida's Coastline Act. This simple bill makes the moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico permanent.

In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee on the need for making the current moratorium on offshore drilling made permanent, he explained that action is needed because without additional legislation, the current moratorium will be lifted in 2022, leaving open the possibility of drilling just a few miles off Florida's shores.

We know well from our experience with the BP Oil Spill (which didn't even reach our beaches), that offshore drilling will undermine our economy by impacting tourism and the quality of our water-based recreation.

Rooney testified, "In addition to the risks to our economy, we don't need to take this risk to be energy secure anymore. We have more reserves in the United States now than Russia or Saudi Arabia have in conventional reserves. The economic case for extending the drilling moratorium is strong. As important, the Eastern Gulf is home to the Gulf Test Range, a 120,000-square-mile range that stretches from the Florida panhandle to the Keys. This unimpeded training and testing areas are crucial national security assets that cannot be carried out anywhere else in the United States. The vast size allows the testing of hypersonic weapons, combat maneuvers training, drone testing, and untold future operations of weapons and platforms that will not only need space for testing, but also restricted access areas for classified operations."

SCCF has signed onto a letter endorsing House Legislation to Protect Our Coasts from Offshore Drilling and Seismic Airgun Blasting.

Rae Ann Wessel is the natural resources policy director and Holly Schwartz is the policy assistant for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. For more information about the SCCF, visit www.sccf.org.

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