TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – March 13, 2019 – A pair of environmental bills aimed at boosting water quality regulations began moving in the Florida Legislature with bipartisan support Tuesday as lawmakers work to address the algae problems that have plagued the state.
One bill would result in fines for municipalities after sewage spills, while the other would increase regulations on the spreading of biosolids, or human waste left over from the municipal sewage treatment process.
The nutrients found in human waste can feed algae blooms such as toxic red tide, brown tide and blue-green algae.
All three types of algae impacted Florida in 2018, killing fish, fouling waterways and hurting local economies.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has made water quality a top priority, and lawmakers from some of the affected regions have filed a slew of environmental regulation and funding bills.
Environmental advocates said the two measures dealing with municipal sewage are the first major algae-related water quality regulation bills to gain traction in the 2019 legislative session, which began last week.
The sewage spill measure sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, would fine municipalities $1 for every gallon spilled. To avoid paying the fine a utility provider could also "spend $2 for each gallon (spilled) to upgrade or remediate the problems that gave rise to the unlawful discharge," according to the legislation.
The bill also includes a public notice requirement that would put pressure on municipalities by forcing them to send a letter to homeowners when there is a spill nearby. Fine said the idea is to get homeowners incensed enough to demand local officials take action.
The biosolid and sewage spill bills cleared their first committees in both the House and Senate Tuesday with broad support and the backing of environmental groups, a rarity in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Gruters and Fine both come from regions impacted by severe algae problems. Red tide plagued Sarasota and communities through Southwest Florida last year, while Fine lives in Brevard County, which has experienced a series of brown tide algae blooms.
Fine noted that Brevard had a massive sewage spill after Hurricane Irma in 2017. The hurricane overwhelmed sewage systems across the state and led to sewage discharges in 39 counties, including Sarasota and Manatee. Irma caused about 30 million gallons of sewage to be dumped into the Indian River Lagoon, according to Florida Today.
The sewage may have contributed to a brown tide bloom in the lagoon that persisted for months after Irma, with dead fish and human feces floating in the waterbody. Brown tide has been a problem in the region for years. Some have blamed the algae outbreaks on septic tanks, which Fine tried to regulate two years ago without success. Gruters and state Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, are pushing a similar septic tank inspection bill this year in response to the red tide algae bloom.
Fine said after encountering resistance to new septic rules from homeowners who said local government should clean up their sewage problems first, he decided to switch gears and focus on municipal sewage spills.
At the same time Brevard was experiencing a big sewage spill last year, Fine said the county approved spending millions on parks and other programs, including a kayak launch near a location where sewage was spilling.
"For too long we've had a problem where parks are more fun to talk about than pipes," Fine said.
Local governments are not doing enough to update their wastewater systems, he added. He believes part of the reason is that the penalties are not severe enough.
No municipal leaders spoke during the environmental committee meetings in the House and Senate Tuesday, but some city leaders have concerns about the bill.
"I think it all sounds good and it's all well intended, but I think we have to look at a more effective strategy," Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin said recently in arguing that local governments need more financial assistance from the state and federal government to improve wastewater infrastructure. The city of Sarasota had a sewage spill in December that released 900,000 gallons of wastewater, with some of it flowing into Sarasota Bay.
Aging infrastructure is a major problem that can lead to broken pipes, but spills also can be triggered by storm events, human error and a host of other causes. Barwin said Sarasota's spill was a freak accident brought on by heavy rains. He has argued that penalizing municipalities would place a great strain on local governments and their taxpayers.
Fine said he had little sympathy for cities and counties complaining about the cost of fixing infrastructure. He argued that local governments need to prioritize their spending.
Some lawmakers wondered about the cost of the legislation during the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing Tuesday. "How do we prevent them from passing that charge on to their customers?" asked Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola.
Fine said local officials ultimately are accountable to voters. Environmental groups largely praised the bill, including Florida Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. But Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen told a Senate Environmental & Natural Resources Committee that there has been "considerable resistance" in the Legislature to helping local governments with infrastructure improvements.
"We are looking forward to working with the sponsor to make sure that any fines are devoted to addressing the problem, perhaps on a statewide basis," Cullen said. "We don't want to assume that everything is due to incompetence."
The debate on biosolids – also known as sewage sludge – stretches back decades but flared up again in many communities during the recent spate of algae blooms.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection developed rules for the use of biosolids – which are used on farms as a fertilizer or disposed of by burning or dumping in landfills – in 1990 and then updated them in 1998 and 2010, according to the House staff analysis of the biosolid bill. The 2010 revision was partly aimed at improving "nutrient management." It incorporated "nutrient management plans" into biosolid permits issued for agricultural sites.
But some communities have continued to express concerns that the biosolids rules were not strong enough to prevent water quality problems. Last year DEP created a biosolid technical advisory committee that met four times to discuss the problem.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, said the biosolid bill she sponsored (SB 1278) is the result of that committee's work.
"This is addressing right now what we think is an inferior permitting process," said Lisa Rinaman, who advocates for water quality issues in the Northeast Florida area around the St. John's River.
Mayfield said that as communities in the southern reaches of the St. Johns worked to restrict the land application of biosolids within their boundaries, the problem was pushed to the north and continued to impact the river.
The regional planning councils that help coordinate land-use management in two other areas impacted by recent algae blooms – Southwest Florida and the Treasure Coast – also have expressed concerns about biosolids. Both passed resolutions last year during the height of the algae blooms calling for the eventual elimination of biosolid application in those regions.
The biosolid bill instructs DEP to begin rulemaking later this year to tighten the rules on biosolids. It directs DEP to adopt rules that "permit the use of biosolids in a manner that minimizes migration of nutrients and that prevents impairment of surface water and groundwater quality."
A range of environmental groups expressed support for the bill.
"We do believe this is a step in the right direction," Rinaman said.
© 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla., Zac Anderson. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.