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Legislature Approves Final Version of SB 2508

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Photo courtesy Friends of the Everglades
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Florida Lawmakers have passed a controversial measure that effects Lake Okeechobee water distribution rules

A bill that started out being widely condemned by environmental interests, and even prompted questions from the Governor, has now been passed by the Florida Legislature.

After a series of amendments on the floor and revisions by a House-Senate conference committee, SB 2508 came out from the conference committee stripped from its attachment to the state budget and won quick approval from lawmakers.

Ryan Rossi, the Director of the South Florida Water Coalition, is pleased with the outcome.

Well I think that the passage of 2508 is a great thing for south Florida communities. There are cities like West Palm Beach that rely heavily on water supply from Lake Okeechobee, it’s one of the primary backup resources," he said. "So this bill ensures that the city of West Palm, in the event that we get a drought, at least knows that they have some assurance that they’re going to get the water that they need.”

Gil Smart, the policy director for Friends of the Everglades is not so pleased. While acknowledging changes have gotten rid of the worst, Friends of the Everglades he said still believes it’s a bad bill.

"It creates a pathway for modernizing water shortage rules as they currently exist," said Smart. "So it’s better in that respect, but we still got a lot of questions. The base line is why politicians in Tallahassee meddling in south Florida water management water shortage rules?”

Rossi says he too is concerned about the environmental impacts of the measure but he believes it provides a balance to the water needs of all.

“We want to make sure that there is a degree of equity on how water is distributed. Certainly the Everglades needs it. Certainly our coastal communities need it. There are others that need it. We just want to make sure that everybody gets the water that they need," said Rossi. "I think that any measure that supports providing supply, particularly in times when there is going to be a shortage that local entities are going to be the ones that are responsible for managing that water since they know the water best, I think that yes, I think that this is a good thing.”

But Smart emphasized that the bill still preserves unfair water rights for big sugar.

“This was an attempt by big sugar and their backers in the legislature to ensure that they got to keep their privileges. And to a large extent, they will," said Smart. "The new language in the bill provides a means by which the Legislature and the Governor might revisit these rules. But will they do so?”

The measure now goes onto the Governor for final action.

West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James issued the following statement in support of the SB 2508:

“Thank you to the bipartisan leadership for supporting SB 2508, which is an insurance policy for the backup water supply from Lake Okeechobee to our 130,000 water customers. This is a win for South Florida residents. We now ask Governor DeSantis to support this legislation. In line with his historic commitment to Florida’s environment, this legislation enhances Everglades’ restoration and protects the drinking water supply for the people of South Florida.”

Read the news release from Friends of the Everglades in full below:

Your opposition helped fend off the worst of SB 2508

We wounded the beast. But Senate Bill 2508 is still an ugly monster of a bill. And now it’s headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

On Thursday, March 10, the Florida Senate and House resolved a budget impasse triggered in part by the controversial SB 2508, agreeing to slight revisions in the bill language. The changes are a marginal improvement over the previous version, and they do little to redeem this sneak-attack legislation — which Senate leaders rammed through the Legislature with little public input. The bill still poses risks to Florida’s fragile environment.

The original bill — which was proposed in early February and had but one legislative hearing — was a hodgepodge of bad ideas that would have undermined the proposed new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM, being devised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It also contained major revisions to the state’s wetlands permitting process, and the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

But after a huge outcry — including more than 2,200 messages that you, our Friends of the Everglades, sent to lawmakers — the bill was amended and some of the most damaging provisions were removed.

The amended version was still bad, codifying outdated water shortage rules into law and introducing legislative hurdles to change them; and the budget bill itself, SB 2500, contained language requiring Senate Bill 2508 or similar legislation to pass for the budget itself to pass.

Again, you spoke up in opposition to the amended bill. Friends of the Everglades supporters sent almost 5,000 messages to Florida lawmakers opposing it.

Ultimately, SB 2508 became a bargaining chip as the Senate and House hashed out a final budget agreement this week. The impasse was resolved after the Senate proposed slightly more flexible language allowing for the outdated South Florida water supply rules to be updated — but only if the Legislature and governor approve the updates. The language requiring the bill to pass in order for the budget itself to pass also was scuttled.

Count it as a partial though pyrrhic victory.

Thanks to your willingness to speak up, the forces of corruption behind SB 2508 have been uncloaked. Florida’s clean-water advocates are more vigilant than ever.

It’s important to note SB 2508 could still result in Big Sugar's water supply being prioritized over the needs of the Everglades and the estuaries.

Moreover, provisions that would allow the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program to begin buying land outright — possibly competing with the Florida Forever land preservation program — remain in place, as does wording allowing public utilities such as FPL to pay the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to expedite the wetlands permitting process.

Bottom line, the bill is still bad news. But it could have been far worse had it not been for your opposition.

Lawmakers seemed caught off guard by the thousands of emails and phone calls. They didn’t expect the opposition to be so strong, so persistent.

But you were — we were — and the bill, and indeed Florida’s environment on the whole, is better off for it.