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Springs Backers Seek Water Policy Changes

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – An advocacy group for Florida's natural springs has outlined concerns with a major water-policy bill that is expected to be quickly approved during the upcoming 2016 legislative session.

The Florida Springs Council, a consortium of 35 organizations, is telling lawmakers what changes are needed to get its support for the proposal (SB 552 and HB 7005). But the group isn't hopeful that its requests – or similar requests from other environmental groups – will result in changes to the proposal.

"I'm not expecting that the leadership is going to make any changes on their own," council Legislative Chair Robert Palmer said Monday. "I think it will be a victory to at least get them considered, debated and voted upon."

House State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, the prime sponsor of the water proposal, said Monday he's willing to discuss additions desired by the springs council, but those issues most likely will have to wait for future legislation.

"At this point the water package has been debated and negotiated for two years," Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said. "The kind of things they're asking about I'm willing to talk about in a separate venue. This is not going to be the last natural-resources bill ever passed. But I think this one is ready to move forward."

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a proponent of the water package, has called the water-policy bill a step toward meeting the state's future water needs. Lawmakers could not reach agreement on a similar package during the 2015 session.

"This builds on Florida's strong tradition of water policy that dates back to the early '70s," Putnam told reporters last month. "And it won't be the end. I think there are things we need to continue to do, but in that march toward progress. This appears to be moving and I hope it goes all the way, unlike last year."

In a letter last week to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, the springs council noted it has developed 17 amendments to the water measure, with a focus on protecting and restoring natural springs.

The letter, signed by Palmer, also notes that the measure would receive the council's endorsements if four particular amendments were added to the bill prior to a floor vote.

– Strengthen water-metering provisions to require data on users that draw 100,000 gallons per day or more.

– Require water-management districts to estimate a maximum sustainable groundwater withdrawal for each district.

– Authorize an independent study of water fees that could look at establishing prices for users permitted to draw water from an aquifer.

– Name a "Restoration Focus Spring" that would be restored within 15 years.

"None of these amendments involve substantial outlays by Florida's taxpayers, but taken together, they would constitute a very effective impetus to springs restoration," the letter said.

The water bills, a priority of Crisafulli, are expected to be among the first items brought up after the annual legislative session begins Jan. 12.

The identical proposals seek to establish water-flow levels for springs and set guidelines for the Central Florida Water Initiative, which is a regional water-supply planning effort that involves the Department of Environmental Protection, the St. Johns River Water Management District, the South Florida Water Management District, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and regional water utilities.

The bills also would further establish management plans for farming around Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee Estuary and inland portions of the Caloosahatchee River watershed, and the St. Lucie River and Estuary.

The package also would require the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research to provide an annual assessment of the state's water resources and conservation lands.

The springs council was more supportive of efforts two years ago by the Senate that would have funneled money into restoration of springs.

The current proposal received little criticism during relatively brief committee reviews in October and November.

The most coordinated opposition arose in early December when 106 environmental organizations and businesses – including the Sierra Club, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Friends of the Everglades – signed a letter seeking 12 changes to the proposal.

Among the desired changes were stricter deadlines for cleaning waterways, stronger enforcement language against polluters, wider authority for regional water-management districts to review water-use permits and the ability of local governments to impose stronger restrictions on the use of fertilizer.

The Florida Springs Council was not among those signing the letter approved by the 106 organizations and businesses.

"I had nothing against it," Palmer said. "It just had a bunch of other amendments which were not the ones that we were pushing. We already had a position, which was we don't support the bill and here's the amendments we'd like to see."

The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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