- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The House passed a bill Thursday that supporters said will help the state clean its waterways, protect springs and help plan for future water use as the state’s population continues to grow.

The bill passed on a 106-9 vote, but critics said it didn’t go far enough to address the state’s water issues.

The bill would update existing plans to manage phosphorus levels flowing into Lake Okeechobee from the north and reducing the nutrients released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers as well as the northern Everglades. It will also seek to protect water flow in Florida springs, as well as prevent them from being polluted. The bill also calls for planning for alternative water supplies.

“This bill is going to make history. This is one of the giant steps forward for water policy in this state,” said Republican Rep. Ben Albritton of Wauchula.

The 94-page (HB 7003) bill also calls for developing plans to address water use on agricultural lands with the goal of keeping fertilizers out of waterways - though critics said it weakens oversight of water discharged from those properties by stripping permits in exchange for a voluntary program.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said the bill failed to address other major problems, such as water flow issues into the Apalachicola and Florida bays, salt water intrusion into South Florida water supplies, and the effects of sea level rise. They also said the bill doesn’t contain enough language dealing with water conservation.

Pafford also noted that the Department of Environmental Protection didn’t weigh in on the bill and it wasn’t considered by the House committees that focus on agriculture and natural resources.

“The bill has been described as the comprehensive water bill, but it’s missing one thing: It’s not comprehensive,” he said.

It was also criticized by Eric Draper, a lobbyist for Audubon of Florida, who said that it replaces hard deadlines and rules for restoring Lake Okeechobee.

“Lake Okeechobee will not be cleaned up with this bill,” Draper said.

The legislation was the first bill passed by the House in the 60-day session that began Tuesday.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, who sponsored the bill, said it’s an attempt to fix problems created through rapid growth over the past century.

“We’re talking about the inheritance of bad decisions in the middle of the 20th century that we are going to have to come back and address,” said Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers.

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