The Senate has again updated its proposed bill managing water in and around Lake Okeechobee as lawmakers look to tie a bow on the 2022 Legislative Session.
With a budget conference set for early Thursday evening, the Senate offer adds a few changes to the measure (SB 2508) sponsored by Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican. The measure was also a priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican.
Senate budget chief Kelli Stargel said senators were focused on addressing the needs of South Florida stakeholders in crafting the final language.
“I think it meets the needs of that whole region down there,” Stargel said. “You have all kinds of different components. And I think what we’ve done in this bill is really met those needs and make sure that we maintain accountability, which is necessary, but also did it in a way that’s workable with all the different stakeholders in the process.
The measure already contained language requiring water shortages within the Lake Okeechobee Region to be managed under the current rules set up by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). New language added to the bill Thursday looks to give Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers a say in any potential changes to those rules.
“Any change to such rules may not take effect until ratified by the Legislature and presented to the Governor, or if the Legislature fails to act and present to the Governor during the next regular Legislative Session, such rules shall take effect after the next regular Legislative Session.”
The bill also required the SFWMD “to certify that its recommendations to the United States Army Corps of Engineers comply with all district programs and plans” and “provide the certification before funds are released.” Thursday’s updated language “clarifies that the certification and approval of modifications to plans does not constitute final agency action,” according to a document laying out the Senate’s offer.
Proponents say that instituting the certification process will protect the state’s ability to ensure sufficient supply for the more than 6 million people affected by the Lake O water resource.
West Palm Beach Mayor Keith A. James is one of the local South Florida leaders backing the updated language.
“Thank you to the bipartisan leadership for supporting SB 2508, which is an insurance policy for the backup water supply from Lake Okeechobee to our 130,000 water customers,” James said.
“This is a win for South Florida residents. We now ask Gov. DeSantis to support this legislation. In line with his historic commitment to Florida’s environment, this legislation enhances Everglades restoration and protects the drinking water supply for the people of South Florida.”
Thursday’s offer also removes “amendments to provisions relating to land acquisition procedures.”
“All water users in South Florida — businesses, residents and environment — are breathing a big sigh of relief to see SB 2508 included in the budget published today by the Florida Legislature,” said Adam Basford, Vice president of Government Affairs for the Associated Industries of Florida.
“With this budget, lawmakers provided significant, additional funding for water restoration and protection, and established strong protections for state rights to state water resources.”
The legislation was filed as a budget conforming bill, making it part of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers as they finalized the 2022-23 budget.
The bill as originally written sought to ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not reduce the amount of water available to “existing legal users.” But Albritton later amended the legislation to ensure that latter language did not impact SB 10, a 2017 law giving flexibility on how water can be moved throughout the region.
“Part of that process is to listen to concerns, answer questions transparently, and make changes when necessary,” Albritton explained. “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 original bill also contained language that prompted some to worry funding for the Everglades Agriculture Area reservoir may go to other projects and affect the EAA construction timeline. The Albritton amendment sought to assuage those concerns.
“As our state heads into a potentially severe drought, this budget and policy could not be more important,” said Jim Spratt Thursday on behalf of the Florida H2O Coalition. “We — as a state — must ensure Florida families have enough water to drink. Thank you to the Senators and Representatives who provided this critical funding to protect Florida’s water resources, as well as the accountability taxpayers demand.”
Kevin Doyle, Florida Executive Director at the Consumer Energy Alliance, also chipped in to support the measure Thursday night.
“Consumer Energy Alliance is pleased that the Florida Senate’s latest offer on SB 2508 includes language that gives water users in Florida, including cities and energy developers, assurance that federal overreach will not hurt the operations on which families, farmers and small businesses rely,” Doyle said.
“We’ve seen how the federal government has used water to overstep its authority and impede energy development in other states around the country. This bill ensures it won’t happen in Florida. We urge the House to accept this proposal and Gov. DeSantis to sign the bill into law to protect Florida’s water users.”
Ryan Rossi, director of the South Florida Water Coalition, added, “This is a big win for seven million people in South Florida who turn on their faucets daily. Lawmakers are taking control of the backup water supply at Lake Okeechobee and providing peace of mind to millions of Floridians.”