Everybody is talking about water due in large part to the overwhelming popularity of Amendment 1. The 75% passage rate changed the dialogue in Tallahassee: now at least the Legislature has recognized this is an important issue for voters on both sides of the aisle. While there will be huge battles of the allocation of that money, the state has a myriad of other water issues to deal with. Florida is in a water crisis in more ways than one: the Hoover Dyke, which hold the south side of Lake Okeechobee, is one bad storm away from Katrina-like disaster. While most of the repairs are up to the federal government, a direct hit from a hurricane could be one of the worst disasters in state history unless some action is taken. From the Keys to the panhandle, water issues will dominate this session and make strong alliances this session.
With everyone talking about water, look for one issue to be curiously absent – discussion of the state water models. All water issues in the state of Florida depend on one groundwater flow model – one that is horribly inaccurate and out-of-date. The DEP recognizes that their model is no good and even former DEP head Vinyard was very adamant that it needed to be changed – and indeed, the DEP has plans for a new model for 2020. However, the technology and the methods they are using to create the new model are also horribly outdated, so even when the new model gets here, it will still not be accurate. The bottom line is that the basic fundamentals of how water moves in this state are flawed, thus most of the calculations for all other water issues are questionable. There is a battle outside the legislature to get some outside resources into the creation of these models – companies such as Coca-cola have spent millions of dollars modeling Florida’s water and use vastly superior technology. With all the math for progress being skewed by an inaccurate model, a lot of ‘water policy planning’ is just guesswork.
Beyond that fact, political battles are being set up in the house. Perhaps one of the most interesting bill to pop up is a bill moving much of the water regulation and enforcement from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of Agriculture. Representative Matt Caldwell, chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee in the house, has introduced a bill to move most of the water regulation away from the Department of Environmental Protection to the Department of Agriculture, which would move water regulation away from the Governor. In any other political atmosphere, this would be a shameless power grab, yet in this particular circumstance it may just signal Putnam moving away from Governor Scott. While the act may simply be for political theater, it will be important to watch if an actual deep rift between the Commissioner of Agriculture and the Governor develops.
Then there are the springs. While the spring bills last year failed to pass the house, Commissioner Putnam has publicly told advocacy groups that passing springs legislation is his number one priority this session. This will put him directly against the big agricultural industries in the north, but if he prevails to craft a compromise between the two groups, he will cement his future as governor. If he can create a strong cohort of allies in the house to pass legislation, he could prove to be an effective negotiator as well.
Much of the controversy over the springs is geographically located in an area with little representation in Tallahassee – while all of Florida has typically been considered cattle country back to the days the Seminole tribes dominated the land, increased sugar and orange trades have pushed them up above the frost line. In recent decades they have been become concentrated into the area from Gainesville to Tallahassee to the coast in a part of the state I refer to as ‘the armpit’. This of course sits directly on the highest concentration of springs in the state and has had a huge impact on the environment of the whole region. There are estimates that show as much as 70-80% of fish in the gulf of Mexico use this area to spawn, so the high concentrations of nitrates flowing into this estuary is unsustainable for life in the entire Gulf of Mexico. With sparse representation in Tallahassee and many key interests looking to limit changes, the battle will more than likely not be settled this session, but has the potential to have an incredibly ripple effect. This could result in bitter rivalries on the Republican side, as many rural Republicans will be directly opposed to more urban Republicans, especially the power players out of Tampa.
Of all the issues up this session, water will be the most important because it will cause the most divides and perhaps has the most critical consequences long-term. Instead of Republican versus Democrat, the battle lines will mostly likely fall between urban versus rural, which could make for some odd alliances. These issues will not be one piece of legislation, but many over the next few sessions. It will be interesting to see which changes to the law get through the process ahead of others.