United States: "Year Of Water" Points To Major Changes During 2015 Florida Legislature

Last Updated: February 23 2015
Article by Roger Sims

Roger W. Sims is a Partner in our Orlando office.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The House State Affairs Committee passed a comprehensive bill on Feb. 11 with an emphasis on Florida's first and second magnitude springs (i.e., "priority Florida springs").
  • The Florida Senate, Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Charlie Dean filed a bill on Feb. 13, providing for the designation of "outstanding Florida springs."

2015 is being called the "Year of Water" for the Florida Legislature. Springs have declined in flow and water quality, aquatic habitats have become degraded, and rivers flowing from Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries of these rivers have been negatively impacted. In general, the state of water quantity and quality has become a crisis. Because of this, the 2015 legislative session is likely to adopt laws addressing these and many related problems, and the bottom line for water users will likely be increased expenses. Water will simply cost more. Further, since the approach will probably use a watershed/springshed management methodology, a wide range of agricultural, business and development activities will be limited or precluded by newly developed basin plans.

The House State Affairs Committee (SAC) passed a comprehensive bill on Feb. 11 with an emphasis on Florida's first and second magnitude springs (called "priority Florida springs" in the bill). Minimum flows and levels (MFL) as well as prevention and recovery strategies must be adopted or revised under the bill by the state's water management districts. Prevention and recovery strategies are required by existing law to prevent declines in flows or levels below the MFL or to provide for recovery of flows and levels not meeting the minimum requirements. Concurrently, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must assess priority Florida springs and establish total maximum daily loads (TMDL) for nutrients and other key water quality parameters. Basin management action plans (BMAPs) must be adopted for those deemed to be impaired. Agricultural activities within a BMAP area are required to implement best management practices or water quality monitoring.

The bill further mandates coordination of water supply planning, consumptive use permitting and resource protection policies for the Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI) area, which is located where Southwest, South Florida and St. John's water management districts share common boundaries. The CFWI was initiated by the districts address groundwater limitations, to plan for future alternative supplies and water shortages, and to make methodologies compatible. The House legislation requires the DEP to develop an interagency agreement to facilitate the CFWI process.

Special provisions are included for the Lake Okeechobee system (including the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and their estuaries) to be implemented by the South Florida Water Management District and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. As with the springs element of the bill, BMAPs are the dominant methodology for comprehensive watershed management.

The bill does not address how existing groundwater users will fund alternative water supply projects, such as reservoirs or river withdrawals, or pay for upgraded treatment needed to reuse domestic wastewater. While prevention and recovery strategies are flexible and allow for innovation, funding is consistently a major challenge for reducing stress on aquifers, which may significantly affect spring discharges. These discharges in turn are tied to the quality of the spring systems and related habitats.

Meanwhile, in the Florida Senate, Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Charlie Dean (R-Inverness) filed SB 918 on Feb. 13, and this bill provides for the designation of "outstanding Florida springs" to be protected by various measures. As with the House State Affairs Committee bill, MFLs and prevention/recovery strategies are key tools to protect the springs. SB 918 further provides for the delineation of "spring protection and management zones" within which activities adversely affecting springs may be regulated (e.g., introduction of nutrients to the groundwater within the area of influence of the spring). As with the House version, SB 918 provides for the development of TMDLs and BMAPs to protect the quality of water flowing to the springs.

One additional measure in SB 918 is the identification of septic tanks within spring protection and management zones and a duty on the part of local government to develop a remediation plan to reduce nutrient contamination of the groundwater. This may prove to be one of the more controversial provisions of the bill since a large number of individuals will likely be affected and the cost to local government to administer the remediation program could be difficult to handle.

On the subject of funding, SB 918 contemplates the adoption of rules to establish a "work plan" of projects needed to implement the legislation. Eligible projects may include remediation plans in impacted areas or acquisition of native lands where it is important to maintain the springshed. Money raised by the Amendment 1 program approved last November also could be in the mix. Amendment 1 was approved as a constitutional amendment to establish and fund a "Land Acquisition Trust Fund" to manage and restore natural systems, as well as to enhance public access and recreational use of conservation.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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