‘Blue-Green Ben’ Albritton’s bad bills could take major toll on Florida’s water

The Florida Legislature has convened in Tallahassee, which should make every fan of clean water shudder.

Actually there are several good bills under consideration this year, from measures to adopt more recommendations from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force to a proposal requiring the state to notify citizens when waterways are contaminated with fecal bacteria.

But bad bills abound, including “seagrass mitigation” measures that could actually result in more dead seagrass, and a series of bills that could make it easier to sue local governments and hinder their ability to govern effectively.

Two of the worst proposals originate with Sen. Ben Albritton of Bartow, the powerful Republican who chairs the key Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government and is in line to be Senate President in 2024.

If Senate bills 1210 and 1000 pass, Albritton may well earn himself a new nickname: Blue-Green Ben.

Senate Bill 1210 would curtail the ability of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to regulate pesticide use and some farming activity. It would grant the “presumption of compliance” to farming operations that use pesticides, taking it on faith that the chemicals are being applied correctly. The state would not be able to check to see if that’s actually the case.

The bill then stipulates that “current or former agricultural land that meets certain requirements is exempt from further regulation” by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That is, the state’s authority to assess and address potential problems would be curtailed.

Is weaker regulation really the answer for Florida’s environmental challenges?

This may stem from some farmers’ concerns that they’re being penalized for “legacy” pollution on their farms, problems that originated with previous owners. That may be a legitimate concern — but is weaker regulation really the answer for Florida’s environmental challenges?

Still, if SB 1210 is bad, SB 1000 is worse.

It would allow farmers to hire experts to recommend “rate tailoring” when it comes to applying fertilizer. Those recommendations could be based on factors like soil condition, disease or new crop varieties — but also “market requirements.”

In other words, if competitors somewhere else are able to produce higher yields by using more fertilizer, Florida’s farmers should be able to follow suit.

Nevermind the fact Florida’s waters are already teeming with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, much of it coming via agricultural runoff.

But not to worry: SB 1000 would require farmers enrolled in rate tailoring to utilize “best management practices,” or BMPs. Problem is, so long as they do, SB 1000 grants them the presumption of compliance, with the state assuming they’re actually meeting pollution reduction goals. And no checking.

This borders on insanity. Recent investigative reporting shows Florida’s flagship program to reduce water pollution — Basin Management Action Plans, which rely heavily on farmers using BMPs — is failing miserably. In part this is because state regulators lack the authority to enforce BMPs; and all farmers enrolled in BMPs are presumed compliant with state regulations.

SB 1000 would allow producers to increase their use of fertilizers and still be deemed compliant with those regulations.

Indeed, the bill is so perilous that Chris Pettit, Florida Agriculture Water Quality Director for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, actually spoke against it at its first committee stop, telling members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources Jan. 10 that SB 1000 would make it “challenging” for the state to meet pollution-reduction goals.

Does anyone actually believe this will result in fewer nutrients in our waters?

Rather, this is how we get even more nutrients, and even more problems. More seagrass loss, more manatee deaths, more harmful algal blooms.

You can voice your opposition by contacting Albritton to say Florida doesn’t need weaker rules. Call his district office at (863) 534-0073, or his Tallahassee office at (850) 487-5026; or email albritton.ben.web@flsenate.gov.

For if these bills pass, Blue-Green Ben may call it a victory.

But it’ll be a huge loss for our waters, and everyone and everything that depends upon them.