Legislators have ‘unique opportunity’ with new Water Quality Subcommittee; but will they take it?

Decaying microalgae in the Gulf of Mexico washes up to the shore of Sanibel Island on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, at Lighthouse Beach Park. Following Hurricane Ian’s landfall in late September and the decline of water quality in the gulf, barrier islands in southwest Florida have been facing fish kills from red tide blooms. Photo by Leah Voss.

When it comes to water quality issues, we’re always leery of putting too much faith in the Florida Legislature.

Time after time, we’ve watched bad bills sail on through. Proposals like last year’s Senate Bill 1000 (which will allow citrus growers to use more fertilizer, virtually guaranteeing more nutrient runoff) usually pass easily, with plenty of bipartisan support.

It’s almost as if clean water matters less than whatever it is the special interests want.

But this year, we may have a “unique opportunity” to actually make some headway on our water quality problems, according to Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, chair of the new House Water Quality, Supply and Treatment Subcommittee.

The group met for the first time last week; the goal, said Steveson, is for “infrastructure planning and natural resource protection (to) be thoughtfully considered as a whole, not piecemeal.”

She continued: “These subcommittees will work together to develop strategic solutions for the future of our water supply, water quality, transportation, land conservation and resiliency, to ensure Florida remains a beautiful and prosperous state for years to come.”

That sounds great.

But we’ll hold our applause until we see some results.

For at first glance, some of the imperatives seem to be at odds. Transportation advocates may say Florida needs more roads — think “M-CORES,” the “Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance Program,” authorized by the Legislature in 2019 but ultimately scuttled. It would have authorized some 330 miles of new toll roads from Collier County to the Panhandle, traversing rural lands.

There’s always an argument that Florida’s ever-growing traffic volumes require more blacktop. Which is almost always accompanied by additional retail and residential development, possibilities opened up by the new blacktop.

And that of course means more runoff, more open space obliterated, more impacts to wildlife, and certainly more impacts to water quality and quantity.

So what’s the plan, where transportation or other goals clash with water quality/quantity? Will water quality be prioritized? Subcommittee members haven’t yet said.

So stay tuned.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s nice to hear legislators pay lip service to water quality issues. But with red tide festering off the Gulf coast, with predictions of a major blue-green algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee this spring — with the lake still above 16 feet, raising the prospect of polluted discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries — we need more than talk. We need bold, decisive action.

This new subcommittee does indeed have a unique opportunity to move the needle.

But we’ll be watching very closely — to make sure it’s moving in the right direction.