Senators on Thursday amended a major bill changing the management of water in South Florida and state environmental land buying programs. The amendment was an attempt to assuage concerns from critics — including Gov. Ron DeSantis — that the bill would take funding from a project key to preventing water pollution in the region.
It was unclear if the move allayed all the fears of the bill’s opponents. A DeSantis spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.
Dozens of fishing guides and environmental advocates gathered at the Capitol ahead of the vote on SB 2508 saying the amendment doesn’t do enough.
One major group, however, is pleased with the change.
The Everglades Foundation applauded the removal of a section that eliminated dedicated funding for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. The project is designed to store water south of Lake Okeechobee and help prevent polluted water from being dumped into estuaries on either side of the lake by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when water levels get to high.
Those discharges can lead to damaging algal blooms that foul waters and kill marine life, hurting residents and businesses dependent on clean water. The original bill would have allowed some funds currently dedicated to the EAA reservoir to go to three other water storage projects around the lake.
“The construction of the EAA Reservoir, south of Lake Okeechobee, remains a priority of the state of Florida,” said Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, in a statement. “A few issues remain but having heard the assurances from Senators on the Senate floor today, we believe those issues will be addressed and resolved during the budget conference process.”
Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican sponsoring the bill, was able to gain more support from skeptics within the Senate after making the change. The original version passed 16-4 in the Senate Rules Committee last week, but passed 37-2 on Thursday after the amendment was approved unanimously by a voice vote. Only Sens. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, and Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat, opposed the bill Thursday.
Albritton said the amendment “provided clarity” but said one of his main goals was to ensure the South Florida Water Management District abides by existing state rules and procedures in handling the water coming from Lake Okeechobee. Critics of the bill believe it will favor the sugar industry by guaranteeing water for sugar farmers during drought years.
Not all environmental groups were mollified by the amendment to the bill, however.
Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, is concerned about a section of the bill expanding the Rural and Family Lands Program, which currently is designed to protect wetlands and agricultural areas, to include the protection of wildlife corridors. Another land and environmental conservation program, Florida Forever, already is dedicated to a similar purpose. The Rural and Family Lands program is housed in the Department of Agriculture, while Florida Forever is run by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Is this ultimately benefiting our taxpayers and our natural resources or is it more geared toward benefiting landowners?” asked Lindsay Cross, government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters.
Another point of contention for critics is that the bill emerged two weeks ago as a budget conforming bill, which received just one committee hearing before heading to the floor. Typical bills with major policy changes usually get three committee references. The process means SB 2508, which doesn’t have a similar House companion version, will be part of budget negotiations with the House and likely will be essential to the passage of the budget.
“That level of policy change belongs in the committee process,” argued Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters.