DeSantis signs water-quality bill touted as historic, yet also condemned as polluter-friendly

algae bloom
Green slime blankets a south Florida canal. Credit: John Moran, 2018

Over strenuous objections from leading water-quality advocates, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law the “Clean Waterways Act,” adopted in March by the Florida Legislature.

During a press conference and bill-signing Tuesday in Juno Beach, DeSantis described the new law as the most significant advance in decades toward reducing the water pollution plaguing Florida waterways. SB 712 was spearheaded by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Republican from Indian River and Brevard counties.

“Our water quality bill was really comprehensive, probably the most comprehensive bill we’ve seen in quite some time. It makes significant changes to expedite improvement of water quality throughout Florida by addressing issues related to wastewater, septic systems, stormwater, and agriculture,” DeSantis said.

Associated Industries of Florida, a coalition of industry lobbyists, endorsed the measure, saying it “addresses water quality and protects Florida businesses from lawsuits by defining that people cannot sue on behalf of inanimate objects, i.e. rivers, lakes, streams etc.”

That latter provision shields businesses from being sued over “rights of nature,” a movement attempting to assign legal rights to natural resources such as waterways.

The governor also signed into law a bill dramatically increasing fines against water polluters, especially sewage-spilling municipalities, and touted his record on funding for Everglades restoration, set at $625 million this year even after he made budget cuts prompted by the state’s economic downturn due to coronavirus.

Critics, however, denounced the “Clean Waterways Act” as a polluters’ bill that will do little to stop the decline of the state’s unique natural springs, rivers, bays, and renowned waterways such as the Florida Everglades.

The Florida Springs Council, Waterkeepers Florida, and the Sierra Club had urged legislators to “fix the bill” by adopting 18 measures they have long advocated and which they say would actually clean up Florida’s polluted waters. Lawmakers rejected the package of amendments.

The critics said in a joint response to the bill-signing: “What Gov. DeSantis signed today is the result of weakening, over and over again, the language to fit the needs of the state’s biggest polluters.”

The water-quality advocates issued a side-by-side comparison of provisions in the Clean Waterways Act with the recommendations issued by the governor’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, created to develop plans to clean up pollution that is especially severe in south Florida. The comparison suggests the new law largely fails to meet goals the task force deemed essential.

The Springs Council said the law “will do absolutely nothing to reduce nutrient pollution in Florida’s many impaired, algae-choked springs.”

Springs Council director Ryan Smart said the bill fails by design to curtail the greatest threat to springs: pollution from Florida’s wealthy agriculture sector. The council and seven other advocacy groups and individuals are fighting the Department of Environmental Protection in court to demand better protection for springs.

A reporter asked the governor to reconcile his support for cleaner water with his signing of a new law Monday that prohibits Florida cities from banning particular sunscreens that contain chemicals harmful to corals. According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration, these chemicals may also be harmful to humans.

DeSantis did not address the threat to corals or human health, the difference between reef-safe sunscreens and the ones cities want to ban, nor whether the law trumps home rule, saying only that skin cancer was his main consideration.

“That’s the advice I got from doctors and scientists,” he said.