We aren't going to fix Florida's waterways until we stop loading them up with poop. Ask any biologist. Failing septic tanks and broken municipal sewer pipes have galvanized the state’s environmental discourse.
So, how come we're here now with less than three weeks left in the 2019 legislative session, yet we don't have a single piece of significant sewage-be-gone legislation anywhere near the finish line?
The simple answer: Dissension among legislators.
Trouble in River City, a.k.a. District 17 -- the wider Brevard County area.
It's where Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Rockledge, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, both have bold sewage bills in the mix -- hers, Senate Bill 1758; his, House Bill 141.
Fine's passionate, now-famous closing on 141 before the March 12 Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee meeting brought the severity of the raw sewage spills home, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon, but statewide, too. It's a popular fix for the raw sewage spills, attractive in its simplicity.
Randy Fine's closing
“The state has an important role in both financially supporting (lagoon) recovery and guiding local governments to get the job done. My legislation will do both -- provide the incentive of $50 million a year in matching funds to support Indian River Lagoon restoration and dramatically increase penalties for illegal spills caused by lack of system maintenance."
HB 141 would require a written notice to be sent to residents by mail every time there's a spill, and the note would provide the names and phone numbers of the authorities responsible for the plant's oversight. The bill would also "require a $2 fee for every gallon of raw sewage released, Fine said.
But HB 141 is going nowhere.
Nor has Mayfield scheduled Sen. Gayle Harrell's Senate Bill 368, which is actually legislation Mayfield wrote and tried unsuccessfully to pass last year. Harrell’s bill was originally intended to take $50 million a year from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) and set it aside for environmental improvements to the Indian River Lagoon. It included land acquisition, but also matching grants to utilities for septic-to-sewage conversion and upgrades meant to halt pollutants from flowing into the lagoon. But money is the problem. The LATF is strictly hands off for anything but land acquisition.
Joe Gruters' Senate Bill 216 once was a companion bill for Fine's HB 141, but Mayfield claims the Sarasota Republican's proposal, after an early strike-all, now primarily deals with penalties for utilities to pay $1 fines for each gallon of discharge or $2 per discharge to upgrade or replace sewage plants causing the spills. The utilities also would have to make public notifications of such spills within 24 hours. It doesn't qualify as a companion, she said.
Mayfield says her bill, The Clean Waterways Act, though an 11th hour filing, is necessarily larger in scope than Fine's. "We have an $18.4 billion deficit in water upgrades in this state. This is a bigger picture issue than the Indian River Lagoon. It's statewide, and that's how we have to think."
Will there be enough time, considering Mayfield lacks a House sponsor?
"Holly Raschein is going to do the companion bill," she said. "She may do it as a committee bill, but in any event, we have time" Raschein, R-Key Largo, is chair of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
Change could be slow out of the gate with Mayfield's bill. First, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health will have to produce a legislative report on the impacts of transferring septic systems to sewer systems -- all with BMaps, or Basin Management Action Plans. (A BMap is a "blueprint" for restoring impaired waters by reducing pollutant loadings established in a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.)
In her bill, Mayfield said, the most impaired counties would be first in having to produce a BMap showing how they're going to move from septic tanks to sewers.
But what seems wrong with Mayfield's bill is, Florida dumps hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage annually into its coastal waters, which have turned into pathogen contaminated dead zones. The BMaps aren't the regulatory avenue to mitigate the sewage dumping problem, because they address "average annual loads" from the past, while our aging infrastructure routinely fails under the burden of rapid population growth.
The Fine/Gruters bills provide a direct regulatory stick to provide support for local municipalities to fix their current multi-million- or multi-billion-dollar waste water infrastructure problems. Any legislation short of this will be status quo for Florida's coastal waters.
While I compliment the senator for looking at the bigger picture, I hope she reconsiders her decision and allows her committee to hear the Fine/Gruters' bill.
In January, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony from Brian E. Lapointe, a Ph.D. research professor at Florida Atlantic University who has done more fecal coliform sampling of Florida waters than any other scientist. Lapointe designated septic tanks “the most important and urgent issue facing our state” and called for “a Manhattan Project” to “go to war against algae.”
In his article "Booms and Blooms", in the September 2018 edition of Water and Wastes Digest, Lapointe says, "The fight against algae is the fight for Florida’s future."
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith