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Florida’s waterways provide a significant resource for wildlife, vegetation, agriculture, public health, and recreation. However, amid climate shifts and a growing population, water quality and quantity can affect the economy, employment, health, property values, and food sources. Many bills that have been introduced this session have the potential to impact the quality and quantity of this critical natural resource. 

Many of this year’s bills are related to the 2.6 million septic systems in the state of Florida. Nearly one-third of the state’s population uses septic tanks, representing 12% of the total number of septic tanks in the U.S.  

Unlike central sewers, property owners with septic systems are personally responsible for monitoring and maintaining them. Septic systems have a lifespan ranging from 15-25 years but are often used well past the recommended guidelines. This can lead to wastewater leaking into Florida’s waterways, including the groundwater that supplies 90% of the state’s drinking water. 

Here’s what this year’s water-focused legislation is all about:   

Implementation of the Recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force

Bluegreen AlgaeIn 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order to create a state Blue-Green Algae Task Force. The task force members — water researchers from various Florida universities — were challenged to use the latest scientific information to develop ways to expedite the reduction of nutrient pollution and cyanobacteria, or blue-green algal blooms in the state.   

In October 2019, the Task Force outlined recommendations to make progress toward that goal. These recommendations included improvements to water quality monitoring, increased water storage and treatment facilities, and ensuring more agricultural facilities are following best management practices to reduce nutrient pollution, among many others. Several environmental advocacy organizations released a report outlining the progress so far of each of the recommendations. 

Based on the recommendations of the task force, two similar bills, HB 423, introduced by Florida State Rep. Lindsay Cross (D), and SB 1538, introduced by Florida State Sen. Linda Stewart (D), would require the regular inspection of septic systems to ensure they are working properly, and not leaking. 

The bills also include changes to nutrient load requirements in basin management action plans (BMAPs). BMAPs are management plans used to remediate water bodies that are considered “impaired” by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  

In the state of Florida, a water body is considered impaired and in need of remediation if it doesn’t meet its intended use, say for drinking or recreation, Mary Lusk, an assistant professor in the University of Florida soil and water sciences department told TESI in 2021. There are currently more than 1,500 impaired waterways in the state.  

“Once a water body is put on the list of impaired waters, by law we have to do something to try to fix that,” she said.  

The tool scientists use to revive these waterways is known as the “total maximum daily load,” or TMDL. The TMDL is the maximum amount of any pollutant that can be added to a water body within a given time period.    

Lusk calls this “the pollutant diet of the water body.” Two of the most common pollutants in Florida’s waterways are nitrogen and phosphorus, which originate from stormwater, wastewater, and agricultural lands. Too many of these nutrients can result in harmful algal blooms.    

In order to keep a water body on this strict diet and get it back in shape, the DEP creates BMAPs, which serve as a guide to begin repairing the waterway.    

This legislation would require estimated pollutant load reductions in BMAPs to be able to meet or exceed the total maximum daily load requirements under the plan. 

Additionally, if passed, this legislation would require BMAPs to consider and create strategies for dealing with projected increases in potential nutrient pollution related to population growth and agricultural growth. 

Similar legislation was introduced in last year’s session, but died. 

UPDATE: HB 423 died in Water Quality, Supply & Treatment Subcommittee. SB 1538 died in Fiscal Policy.

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Ratification of Rules of the Department of Environmental Protection

In 2020, Florida lawmakers passed the Clean Waterways Act to address a number of issues related to water quality in the state. The act directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create rules related to reducing nutrient pollution in Florida waters.  

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus can often be found in fertilizers, sewage and wastewater, and even household products like detergents and soaps. When too many of these nutrients make their way into a water body and they are in excess of what naturally occurs, problems can arise. In normal amounts, nutrients can help aquatic plants grow, but in excess, they can lead to the overgrowth of algae and plants like duckweed, which can block sunlight from penetrating the water and reaching beneficial plants, like submerged aquatic vegetation. 

Limited sunlight means photosynthesis, or the process by which plants use sunlight to synthesize food and make energy from carbon dioxide and water, is impeded. Oxygen is the end product of photosynthesis, so this blockage limits the amount of oxygen produced by plants. Plants die because they can’t photosynthesize, and other animals in the water are hurt by the lack of oxygen. 

According to the DEP, “Stormwater-related pollution represents one of the largest potential contributors of nutrients throughout the state.” 

Because some of the rules proposed by DEP under the Clean Waterways Act come with a significant price tag, they must first be ratified before they go into effect. In Florida, a rule is subject to legislative ratification if it: 

  • Has an adverse impact on economic growth, private sector job creation or employment, or private sector investment in excess of $1 million in the aggregate within five years after the implementation of the rule; 
  • Has an adverse impact on business competitiveness, including the ability of persons doing business in the state to compete with persons doing business in other states or domestic markets, productivity, or innovation in excess of $1 million in the aggregate within five years after the implementation of the rule; or 
  • Increases regulatory costs, including any transactional costs, in excess of $1 million in the aggregate within five years after the implementation of the rule. 

This session, the Florida Senate Community Affairs and Environment and Natural Resources committees introduced a bill, SPB 7002, that would ratify some of the rules created as part of the Clean Waterways Act. The rules subject to ratification mostly involve expensive upgrades to septic systems and domestic wastewater facilities.  

One rule would create more stringent permitting requirements for septic systems in areas where the DEP has adopted a remediation plan to repair an impaired waterway. These permitting requirements are intended to ensure that the installed system will not cause or contribute to excess nutrients. It is estimated that if ratified, this rule will increase regulatory costs for septic system upgrades for properties in certain areas. The cost to state and local government over five years adds up to approximately $3.5 million according to the staff analysis of the bill. The total cost to the private sector over five years will be about $50 million. 

This bill would also ratify rules relating to the expansion and upkeep of domestic wastewater facilities. These rules would: 

  • Require a pipe assessment, repair, and replacement plan and an annual report of the plan 
  • Specify the scope and content of the plan and content of the annual report 
  • Include statutory requirements for a power outage contingency plan 
  • Include statutory requirements for an annual report on utilities’ expenditures on pollution mitigation efforts 
  • Require certain domestic wastewater facilities’ emergency response plans to address cybersecurity 

If ratified, DEP estimates that these local government entities will be required to pay approximately $120 million for one-time capital costs and recurring costs. A small county or city that owns a small wastewater treatment facility may pay $50,000-$100,000 to prepare an initial collection system action plan, $10,000-$20,000 to implement the plan, and $5,000-$20,000 to prepare the annual report,” reads the staff analysis.  

The overall goal of the rules proposed in this bill is to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution in Florida waterways to avoid potential effects like harmful algal blooms.  

UPDATE: SB 7002 was laid on the table, meaning it was set aside and died at the end of the session — however, its contents were substituted by HB 7027, which was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval.

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Wastewater Grant Program  

WastewaterMaking improvements to Florida’s water infrastructure comes with a cost. Two identical bills SB 458, introduced by Florida State Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (R), and HB 827, introduced by Florida State Reps. Fabian Basabe (R) and Vicki Lopez (R), would expand the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s existing Wastewater Grant Program. The current program authorizes DEP to provide grants to governmental entities for wastewater projects that reduce excess nutrient pollution within a basin management action plan, alternative restoration plan adopted by final order, or rural area of opportunity (RAO).   

If passed, this legislation would expand the program’s scope to include projects within any waterbody specified as impaired by the DEP. There are over 1,500 impaired waterways in the state. 

Projects might include replacing septic systems with connections to central sewage, retrofitting septic tanks with systems that remove nutrients from sewage, or upgrading wastewater treatment facilities. 

Rep. Lopez told Florida Politics that the expansion of the wastewater program would be beneficial in improving the water quality in the state, especially in her district in Miami. 

“My district has an enormous amount of water. It borders water from the top of Northeast 29th Avenue all the way down to Southwest 27th Avenue,” Lopez said. “This will go a long way toward protecting that water in Biscayne Bay.” 

UPDATE: SB 458 died in Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government; HB 827 died in Infrastructure Strategies Committee.

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Every year, Floridians produce approximately 340,000 dry tons of domestic wastewater biosolids, or the solid byproduct that accumulates in the wastewater treatment plant. Because this material is high in organic content and contains a moderate amount of nutrients, it is considered a valuable fertilizer. A significant portion of the state’s biosolids is used to fertilize beef cattle pastures. The remainder is landfilled.  

Biosolids are currently managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and come in three classes, each with a different level of treatment. Class AA biosolids can be distributed like commercial fertilizers because they have the highest level of treatment. Class B fertilizers are not treated as stringently. When used properly, biosolids release fewer nutrients after a big rainfall event compared to commercially-available inorganic fertilizers. 

This legislative session, Florida State Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R) introduced HB 1405, a bill that would provide specific grants through the DEP’s Wastewater Grant Program for projects that produce Class A or Class AA biosolids from wastewater residuals. Florida State Sen. Jason Brodeur (R) introduced a similar bill, SB 880. 

According to the staff analysis for SB 880, this bill is encouraging the highest level of treatment for biosolids and “the beneficial use of biosolids in a manner that will foster public acceptance, as well as innovative and alternative uses for biosolids.” 

This bill would also prohibit the use of Class B biosolids in watersheds that are impaired, “unless the applicant can affirmatively demonstrate that the phosphorus and nitrogen in the biosolids will not increase nutrient loadings,” reads the bill text.  

The DEP does not allow the application of biosolids in places where the seasonal high-water table is less than six inches from the intended depth of biosolid placement. 

UPDATE: HB 1405 was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval. SB 880 died in the Appropriations Committee. The original version of the bill also called for the prohibition of Class B biosolids in watersheds that are impaired, but that language was removed prior to the passing of the bill.

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Environmental Protection 

Indian River Lagoon SB 1632, introduced by Florida State Sen. Jason Brodeur (R), touches on and creates new requirements relating to a range of topics, including advanced wastewater treatment, septic systems, sanitary sewer services, basin management action plans (BMAPs), the Wastewater Grant Program, the Indian River Lagoon, and the acquisition of state lands. 

The most notable measure this bill puts forth is the prohibition of new septic systems being built near impaired waterways that are currently undergoing BMAPs, reasonable assurance plans, or pollution reduction plans, if municipal sewer systems are accessible. Additionally, this bill introduces several measures aimed at protecting the Indian River Lagoon, including the establishment of the Indian River Lagoon Protection Program. 

The Indian River Lagoon is 156-mile-long estuary that spans almost 40% of the east coast of Florida and six counties (Volusia, Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, and Palm Beach). According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Indian River Lagoon is largely considered to be the most biodiverse estuary in North America and is home to thousands of unique species of plants and animals, including 53 threatened or endangered species. But water quality degradation due to nutrient pollution from stormwater and agricultural runoff has led to the decline of the lagoon’s health.  

“These improvements are all aimed at making this acquisition and monitoring of lands in this state more efficient, and reducing pollutant loads to outstanding Florida waters,” Meta Calder of the League of Women Voters told Florida Politics. “And, these improvements are greatly needed.” 

Other bills related to septic systems and the reduction of nutrient pollution: 

UPDATE: SB 1632 was laid on the table, meaning it was set aside and died at the end of the session — however, its contents were substituted by HB 1379, which was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval.

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Safe Waterways Act 

Water-based recreation plays a significant role in Florida’s economy. In 2016, 75% of Florida’s population participated in outdoor recreation activities. And it’s no surprise that visiting the beach was one of the most popular outdoor activities. Visiting freshwater spots like springs and lakes also accounted for a lot of the time people spent outside. 

But recent levels of detected bacteria have officials concerned. 

In the past few years, several beaches have issued no swimming advisories because of bacteria in the water and warnings for Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that causes life-threatening wound infections. In 2020, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection verified fecal bacteria impairment in 1 million acres of coastal estuaries and 9,000 miles of rivers and streams.   

Bacteria can get into Florida’s waterways in several ways. Untreated stormwater, sewage treatment plant dysfunction, leaky septic tanks, and runoff from areas that contain animal waste are all potential sources of bacteria that end up in the water. 

Florida State Sen. Lori Berman (D) and Florida State Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman (R) introduced SB 172 and HB 177 respectively to adopt health standards and prescribe procedures and timeframes for a bacteriological sampling of beach waters and public bathing places. 

In the language of the bill, a “public bathing place” is a body of water, including freshwater, saltwater, and brackish water, that is natural or modified by humans; used for swimming, diving, and recreational bathing by consent of the owner or owners. By this definition, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, artificial impoundments, and waters along coastal and intracoastal beaches and shores, are all bodies of water that are considered public bathing places and are covered by this bill. 

The bill requires: 

  • The Department of Health (DOH) to issue health advisories related to the results of bacteriological sampling. 
  • The DOH to adopt a sign containing specific language, that must be used when it issues a health advisory against swimming in beach waters or public bathing places due to bacterial contamination.   
  • The DOH to require beaches and other waterways to post the health advisory signs around affected beach waters or public bathing places until bacteria levels meet DOH standards.   
  • That municipalities and counties are responsible for posting and maintaining health advisory signs in affected beach waters and public bathing places that they own.    

This bill was introduced in last year’s session, but died. 

UPDATE: SB 172 Died in the Health Policy Committee; HB 177 died in the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

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Use of Phosphogypsum 

Covering more than 450,000 acres of land, Florida is home to 27 phosphate mines, 9 of which are active and found mostly in the central Florida area. Florida’s sediment in this area is rich in phosphate because it was deposited by the ocean millions of years ago. 

Phosphogypsum is the byproduct created during the phosphate manufacturing process. Phosphate rock contains very small amounts of naturally occurring radionuclides, but because they are removed in the manufacturing process, phosphogypsum has a higher concentration of these radionuclides, making it more radioactive. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires phosphogypsum to be kept in stacks and only removed for agricultural purposes and research. 

HB 1191, introduced by Florida State Rep. Lawrence McClure (R), and similar bill SB 1258, introduced by Florida State Sen. Jay Trumball (R) would call for the Florida Department of Transportation to undertake demonstration projects using phosphogypsum in road construction aggregate material to determine if it is suitable to use in pavement.  

The bills require the DOT to conduct a study on the use of phosphogypsum as a construction material and state that if it is determined suitable, phosphogypsum may be used as a construction material in accordance with the EPA conditions of use. 

The goal of this bill is to “try to find a suitable use for phosphogypsum for other things rather than these stacks just being there for periods of time and then potentially being a burden on the state,” sponsor of the bill Sen. Trumball told Florida Politics. 

However, opponents of the bill worry about the radioactivity of the material. The EPA has stated that phosphogypsum has been linked to higher risks of cancer and genetic damage. 

“This would be an outrageous handout to the phosphate industry at the expense of the health and safety of Floridians and our environment,” said attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity Ragan Whitlock in a press release. “If this bill becomes law, Florida roads would become ticking time bombs, waiting for the next storm event to expose our communities and waterways to this radioactive waste.” 

UPDATE: SB 1258 was laid on the table, meaning it was set aside and died at the end of the session — however, its contents were substituted by HB 1191, which was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval.

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Land and Water Management 

Identical bills HB 1197 and SB 1240, introduced respectively by Florida State Rep. Randy Maggard (R) and Florida State Sen. Danny Burgess (R), will prohibit local governments from adopting legislation that relates to water quality, water quantity, pollution control, pollutant discharge prevention, or removal of wetlands. If passed, those powers would instead be given to the state. 

Environmental groups are concerned about this bill, as the state could potentially withhold funds from counties and municipalities that violate this preemption. In a Florida Phoenix commentary piece, environmental reporter Craig Pittman expressed his concern for the bill. 

“If either bill passes, only the state can regulate polluters, even though it has demonstrated no interest in doing so,” Pittman said. 

UPDATE: SB 1240 Died in Environment and Natural Resources. HB 1197 died in the Water Quality, Supply & Treatment Subcommittee.

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Other Related Bills:  

  • Water and Wastewater Facility OperatorsHB 23 and SB 162  (HB 23 was laid on the table, meaning it was set aside and died at the end of the session — however, its contents were substituted by SB 162, which was enrolled, meaning it has been approved by both the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for approval)
  • Notice of Contaminated Water Systems – HB 207 and SB 592 (HB 207 died in the Healthcare Regulation Subcommittee; SB 592 died in the Health Policy Committee)
  • Residential Graywater System Tax Credits – SB 358 and HB 475 (SB 358 died in the Appropriations Committee; HB 475 died on Second Reading Calendar)
  • Management and Storage of Surface Waters –HB 371 and SB 910 (HB 371 died in the Water Quality, Supply & Treatment Subcommittee; SB 910 died in the Community Affairs Committee)

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