Senate Republican leadership is out with an amendment to a controversial water bill that is one of the latest in a growing number of rifts between the Florida Senate and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The measure (SB 2508), a revival in the fight over Lake Okeechobee’s water, emerged earlier this month and but drew staunch criticism from Florida’s Republican Governor. Bill sponsor and Wauchula Republican Sen. Ben Albritton calls the bill an accountability measure for the agency that oversees the Lake Okeechobee watershed, but DeSantis argues the measure was rammed through the legislative process.
The bill requires the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to make recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that controls releases from Lake Okeechobee, that don’t reduce the amount of water available to “existing legal users.”
To address some of the concerns of the bill’s critics, which include a school of fisherman, Albritton has filed an amendment to clarify provisions that the bill’s provisions don’t affect a 2017 law on water resources. The amendment isn’t a “deal” with the Governor’s Office, but senators hope the measure will address DeSantis’ concerns.
Both Albritton and Senate President Wilton Simpson, who has named the bill a priority, say misinformation has surrounded the bill.
“Over the last two weeks, there has unfortunately been purposeful misinformation on the intent and effect on Senate Bill 2508,” Albritton said in a statement Wednesday. “The legislative process is called a process for a reason. Part of that process is to listen to concerns, answer questions transparently, and make changes when necessary. Therefore, I am sponsoring an amendment that eliminates cross references, plainly states current law, and makes it crystal clear that we are not changing one word of SB 10.”
The amendment would remove tweaks the bill would have made to the 2017 law. It would also remove language that the President’s Office said may have read like it made more changes to the job of the South Florida Water Management District than the bill intended.
The amendment clarifies that funds for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project, the C-43 West Basin Reservoir Project, and the Indian-River Lagoon South projects are aren’t contingent on certification requirements outlined in the bill. Another subsection states that Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule and operating manual must strive to address different interests across the system.
When excess polluted water is released on either side of the lake into waterways on both sides of the state, it can lead to large algal blooms. In the last decade, those blooms spurred mass-scale fish and sea life kills, fouling waterways and dampening outdoor tourism all over the state.
Finding a way to release water into the Everglades, too, is key to preventing the pollution. The 2017 law was aimed at preventing this, and putting money toward the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, a key project to help store water from the lake to prevent the discharges.
“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” DeSantis said in a statement earlier this month. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.”
“Floridians have invested billions of their hard-earned dollars in environmental restoration and this Senate is going to safeguard that investment,” Simpson said in a statement responding to DeSantis. “I am never going to cede one inch of state authority over our water resources to Joe Biden’s federal government — the same administration that did not include one dollar of federal funding for the reservoir in their so-called infrastructure bill.”
Gray Rohrer of Florida Politics contributed to this report.