Huh? Clean-water groups say chief science officer is missing the point

Clean-water advocates say 2020 water-quality legislation is too weak to keep pollution from choking waterways and springs throughout the state. They want to see it revamped so it can meet its goals. Photo: DEP report to Senate Appropriations Committee

Clean-water organizations lobbying for strong legislation to clean up water pollution in Florida are calling upon the state’s chief science officer to “set the record straight” after he highly praised what they consider weak proposals advancing in the Legislature.

They want sponsors of leading water-quality bills to add teeth and financial support and to close loopholes so that the bills can achieve their purported goals.

“Our scientific and policy experts have determined that, in its current form, gutted and watered down by special interests, [these bills] will do very little to fix Florida’s water quality problems,” Florida Springs Council Executive Director Ryan Smart said in a written statement Wednesday.

The Springs Council, Florida Waterkeepers, and the Sierra Club of Florida released a 12-page technical letter to Chief Science Officer Thomas Frazer questioning his published praise for the “Clean Waterways Act,” SB 712, sponsored by Brevard and Indian River County Republican Sen. Debbie Mayfield. Similar legislation, HB 1343, is sponsored in the House by Rep. Bobby Payne, a Republican from north-central Florida.

algae bloom
Toxic algae chokes a South Florida canal. Photo by John Moran

Both bills reflect water-quality improvement goals sought by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, but the environmental groups said they pay only lip service to the problem and will allow pollution to continue. To permanently improve water quality, the environmentalists said, pollution must be stopped at its various sources, including faulty wastewater systems, septic tanks, and agricultural runoff.

David Cullen and Deborah Foote, both with the Sierra Club, said lawmakers have too long evaded the politically thorny problems underlying the municipal, industrial, and agricultural pollution fueling toxic algae blooms, red tide, and fish kills, and fouling Florida’s iconic natural springs.

“We’ve been kicking the can down the road for decades,” Cullen said.

“This is a bullet you have to bite,” Foote said, calling for adoption of the group’s proposed amendments to the legislation.

As quoted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by reporter Zac Anderson, Frazer, Florida’s first chief science officer, appointed by the governor, told The Argus Foundation in Sarasota that SB 712 is “one of the most environmentally progressive pieces of legislation that we’ve seen in over a decade.”

No, it’s not, the clean-water organizations retorted. They argued that Mayfield’s 2019 “Clean Waterways Act” (SB 1758) would have been much stronger than SB 712 but was stripped of its most effective provisions by “lobbyists for polluters.”

The group has offered the sponsors a package of amendments which, if adopted, would largely restore those provisions.

The politely worded letter to Frazer — copied to Mayfield, DeSantis, Department of Environment Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein and members of the blue-green algae and red-tide task forces — alleges two key flaws in the proposed 2020 legislation. The first is that the “basin management action plans” (BMAPs) described in the bills are “designed to fail” because they lack enough projects to sufficiently reduce pollutants to the levels envisioned.

The second key flaw, the letter says, is that the legislation wouldn’t do enough about pollution from agricultural operations, even though it is an exceptionally large factor in water pollution.

Frazer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Phoenix will update this story if he supplies a response.