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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 13, 2019 1 year ago

State representatives reflect on larger legislative picture at water quality summit

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State representatives attended the June 5 Sarasota County Water Quality Summit to update attendees on state policies.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

After one of longest-lasting red tide blooms Sarasota County has witnessed, local residents have continued to look to their leaders for guidance and answers.

Local elected officials, environmental leaders and community members alike congregated at Riverview High School’s auditorium June 5 to learn more about water quality, its many facets and its overall impacts at the Sarasota County Water Quality Summit.

But attendees also wanted to know more about what was being done about water quality, both locally and statewide, which led state representatives to fill the summit’s policy update panel.

Both Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, and Rep. James Buchanan, R-North Port, noted the importance of water quality on Florida’s economy, though they differed in terms of their reflective moods of the last year.

FDEP Director Tom Frick, Rep. James Buchanan, Rep. Margaret Good, Rep. Will Robinson and Rep. Wengay Newton were panelists during the State Policy Update portion of the summit

“At the state level, I think we got a lot done,” Buchanan said. “You look at what we’ve done at the state level — $687 million in Everglades restoration and water quality projects, $49 million of that in water quality projects, $4.2 million in red tide research mitigation … and an additional $10.8 million in water quality enhancement. So I think we’ve accomplished a lot. There’s still a lot to do. And that’s why we’re going up this next session.”

Good wasn’t as optimistic.

“I’m sorely disappointed that we did not do really anything with respect to policy issues that I think need to be addressed in order to make sure that our state is moving forward with water quality issues,” she said.

Project funding is where legislators got stuck, they said.

“If there was anything that was a disappointment, it was the fact that we didn’t get enough money for the Florida Forever Fund,” Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, said of the Department of Environmental Protection’s land acquisition program. “They got something like $37 million, where, last session, it was more like $100 million. … One of the impediments this session was that $100 million is still sitting there. So we’ve got to get busy utilizing those funds, too.”

Land acquisition and protection, both Good and Newton said, are critical to water quality.

Plus, Good pointed out the difficulty in specifically honing bills in on water quality. The challenge, she says, is that water quality bills are competing with other environmental projects, which means everybody might lose.

“Our environmental spending as a state only went up by .003% this session,” she said. “Our overall environment is suffering. … So I’m concerned that we’re putting Band-Aids on the problem without really looking underneath and creating good, long-term solutions.”

Therefore, in looking to next year’s legislative session, all officials said they were committed to continuing their focus on water quality, regardless of what else might come up.

“Two septic bills that made it through — a biosolids bill, an anti-fracking bill — there were a lot of good water quality bills that made it through the [Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommitte],” Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, said. 

“Next session, I would like to see a lot of those bills make it to the House floor where they have a great chance of success.”

Similarly, Good hopes to see a greater emphasis on stormwater and wastewater management, and Buchanan would like the Legislature to revisit the topic of fracking and sewer conversion.

“Water doesn’t care if it’s a Republican or Democratic district; it’s water,” Robinson said. “We have a Crayola box full of problems. … It has a problem that has ripped both coasts.”

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