Albritton Follows Through With ‘Water Rights’ Pledge; Idea Quickly Draws Criticism, Questions About State Water Policy

Early in this year’s legislative session Sen. Ben Albritton, whose district includes a big chunk of this part of Florida, announced he was working on legislation dealing with “water rights.”

True to his word, more than halfway through session, up comes Senate Bill 2508. The legislation suddenly popped up in the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday with just a few days’ notice.

The change that attracted everyone’s attention was a provision that would force the South Florida Water Management District, whose staff reportedly was caught off guard by the bill, to guarantee to legislators that any management plan to dealing with discharges from Lake Okeechobee:

“Do not diminish the quantity of water available to existing legal users;Do not otherwise adversely impact existing legal users; Do not diminish the existing levels of service for flood protection within or outside the geographic area of the
project component”


This sounds like business as usual. The most obvious beneficiary, critics charge, is the sugar industry, whose plantations lie in large tracts surrounding the lake and require large amounts of water to be productive.

The concern is the “flood protection” means continued heavy discharges from the lake’s nutrient-laden water that would once again produce damaging algae blooms in the downstream estuaries that are vital for healthy fisheries. A recurrence of massive algae blooms and fish kill could hurt tourism and coastal economies.

The other concern is that locking in water consumption entitlements could affect Everglades restoration plans, some of which involve sending more of the lake’s water south toward remaining natural areas in the Everglades by attempting to mimic historic natural flows the preceded the system of dikes and canals that now dominate south Florida’s landscape.

Press reports from the hearing didn’t address an even bigger issue that could have statewide implications.

That is the idea, which Albritton’s bill seems to hint at, is that anyone who has secured a water-use permit has something akin to a property right to hold on to that permit forever, regardless in changes in the hydrology of the basin from which the water is extracted.

That goes against how many people understand water law east of the Mississippi, which is that water is a resource that belongs to the public rather than private interests and should be protected and regulated in a sustainable manner.

Nevertheless, the idea that major permit holders have some kind of “water rights” has been simmering in the background for several years.

If Albritton’s bill in fact advances this idea, expect an even more heated debate than occurred during Wednesday’s hearing.





Developer Loopholes Get Polk Commission’s Attention

One of the recurring issues in Polk’s development regulations has been loopholes that allow projects the public thought were denied to proceed anyway in some kind of altered form, thanks to loopholes baked into the growth plan or the development code by development lobbyists or development-friendly county planners.

There was a project on the outskirts of Eagle Lake that suddenly became allowed as urban infill, an apartment complex in the Winter Haven suburbs that was okay after it was reduced from three stories to two stories or a restaurant reconstruction that escaped normal rules by being built on the footprint of the old restaurant.

Tuesday, an embarrassed County Commission discussed a school they had denied because of neighborhood objections that was headed to administrative approval under a different staff interpretation of the rules.

Commissioner Bill Braswell said these reversals made he and his colleagues “look like fools” and generated a public perception that there was some shifty behind-the-scenes stuff going on. It’s hard to blame the public for thinking that.

Commssioners asked County Attorney Randy Mink to look into ways to prevent this kind of thing from recurring.

Mink said he’s look into it, but added this is not as simple a task as it seems.

Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, questioned whether this change would be equitable, citing fairness and potential private property rights claims.

During the discussion commissioners also brought up attempts by the Florida Legislature to further restrict how local officials can regulate development based on alleged claims of business losses. That puts local officials, who would have to pay off developers and their lawyers under the proposed legislation, in a potentially tough financial situation.

That raises a public policy question over whether it isbetter to roll over and regulate less to avoid a budgetary hit or to stick up for the property rights of their non-developer constituents who already think the system is rigged against them?

Stay tuned.





Is The Latest Piney Point Leak Really An ‘Anomaly’?

If you have been following the saga of the efforts to belatedly deal with the environmental impact of the problem-plagued gypsum stack at the former Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County, you keep reading references to the occasional leaks of toxic, polluted water into nearby public waters as an “anomaly.”

An anomaly is defined “something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.”

You might wonder whether that definition applies here.

The reason a team of scientists hired by a court-appointed receiver working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is dealing with the leak is that the stack continues to leak.

This is not surprising. The fertilizer plant it served was built in 1966 before Florida had any real environmental regulations. It was abandoned in 2001 by Mulberry Phosphates (nee Royster Guano Company etc.), the same company that owned the stack that leaked 56 million gallons acidic waste into a tributary of the Alafia River in 1997, killing everything from Mulberry to Tampa Bay.

After the plant was abandoned, it eventually ended up in the hands of DEP officials, who did nothing to close it and eliminate the potential environmental harm. Neither did the private company HRK Holdings, which was the subsequent owner and now has declared bankruptcy.

The issue came to a head last March when water began leaking, resulting in a decision to pump 200 million gallons of polluted water from the stack into Tampa Bay to prevent a catastrophic spill.

The current plan involves treating the remaining polluted water in the stacks to remove the most serious contaminants before injecting the wastewater deep underground.

That is not scheduled to occur until next fall.

In the meantime, another annual hurricane season will occur with the potential for heavy rains and high winds that could threaten this aging facility.

If there is another spill, it won’t be an anomaly.



It is Time To Call It The Heartland Headwaters Exploitation Act

It’s time for some honesty about the goal of the true purpose of the 2017 so-called Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act.

Action in the Florida Senate this week appropriated $20 million from the fund that is supposed to pay for conservation land purchases to implement the act, but it was clear from the staff analysis that this is not an environmental appropriation, but a subsidy to the development lobby to help to finance water supply projects to continue business as usual.

Sierra Club of Florida opposed the bill., which is sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess, a member of the Polk legislative delegation. The House companion bill is sponsored by Rep. Melony Bell, another Polk legislator.

The money could be used to help to finance the Polk County Regional Water Cooperative’s planned Lower Floridan Aquifer wells at the edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern or water storage projects along the Upper Peace River Basin. The legislation is so vague it could allow a multitude of projects that have nothing to do with land conservation.

The proper spending of the land conservation funding is still the subject of litigation, though you would not know this from reading the bill’s staff analysis.

The latest court ruling oddly ruled that the complaints by environmentalists are irrelevant because the Legislature already misspent the first potential appropriation of the money in the year after the authorizing constitutional amendment passed. That ignores an earlier court decision that correctly ruled that there isn’t much anyone can do about past budget decisions. Instead, the focus should be on future misappropriations.

That analysis ignores the fact that the 2014 constitutional amendment approved overwhelmingly by Florida voters called for appropriating the money annually through 2035.

This bill and this week’s votes doesn’t protect anything except the interests of the development community and is another example of how the Florida Legislature continues to thumb its nose at the public.




Florida Not Alone In Corporate Push For Solar Tax

As the Florida legislators consider a bill reportedly written by Florida Power & Light that could reduce or eliminate incentives for installing rooftop solar. It seems this is part of a large offensive by commercial electric utilities.

A similar effort is under way in California, affecting 1.3 million rooftop solar facilities and the current net metering rules.

Net metering allows residents and businesses that generate their own solar power to sell any excess power they generate back to the utility at a market rate. This produces a good return on investment in addition to reducing the demand on the local electric grid.

The utilities’ argument, which is actually contained in the Florida bill, is that all of these rooftop solar units are operating at the expense of other electric customers. The solar energy disputes that claim, citing studies that concluded the effect of rooftop solar is minimal.

To “fix” this situation, they have proposed asking utility regulators to reduce the payback for extra solar power and to even levy a so-called “grid-maintenance charge” for not using the grid as much as everyone else.

In a column in today’s New York Times, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appropriately terms these proposals a “solar tax.”

If approved, the measure would affect more than 100,000 rooftop solar owners in Florida.

This is not a brand new effort.

The electric utilities tried to sneak this proposal into the Florida Constitution in 2016 by fooling voters into believing it would give them the right to install solar panels even though there was no restriction on solar panel construction at the time.

The deception worked. The proposal received a narrow majority of the vote, but not the 60 percent required for approval.

Ironically, the 60 percent threshold was added to thwart grassroots initiatives that legislators didn’t’ like, not corporate initiatives that they typically favor.



More Commerical Solar Proposed In East Polk As Legislators Consider Bill That Could Harm Rooftop Solar Growth

Tampa Electric is seeking to develop a new solar farm on a 37-acre parcel northeast of Lake Mabel in the rapidly-developing former agricultural lands as Lake Wales and Dundee aggressively annex land in the Scenic Highway corridor.

If the project proceeds it would augment the 236 megawatts of solar TECO already is operating in Polk and to other projects that have been approved, but are not completed yet.

These projects provide enough green energy to supply tens of thousands of homes.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of homes and businesses have installed their own solar panels to reduce their carbon footprints and to take advantage of the potential return on investment that comes with the ability under current state law to sell excess power they generate to local electric utilities.

But there may be a catch.

That is because of proposed legislation being considered by the Florida Legislature this year at the behest of Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility.

The bill’s intent seems to be the same as a constitutional amendment the utilities tried to sneak past voters in 2016.

Under the proposed legislation, the Florida Public Service Commission, which is the panel that rules on rate increase requests, would be directed to consider changes in the rates utilities would be required to pay rooftop solar users

There is a concern that PSC could side with utilities, who make a disputed claim that the current rates subsidize customers with rooftop solar at the expense of other customers. That could result in lower rates for rooftop owners, which could increase the time it takes to get a return on their investment for solar panel insallations. That, opponents of the legislation argue, could discourage people from installing their own solar panels and cripple the growing solar industry in Florida.



Proposed Bills May Threaten Future Of Rooftop Solar

The growing popularity of rootop solar for homes and businesses is reportedly drawing a backlash from investor-owned electric companies.

Two bills (SB 1024, HB 741) proposed in this year’s session of the Florida Legislation, which opens this week, may make rooftop solar less economically feasible by allowing utilities to seek to refigure how they handle net metering rates.

Net metering , which dates in 2008 in Florida in connection with green energy initiatives, involves the ability of those who own or lease solar facilities to sell any power they generate but do not use back to the utility.

The bills, which news reports document were written by Florida Power & Light lobbyists, would direct the Public Service Commission to draft new rules on net metering with an eye toward entertaining claims by FP&L and other investor-owned utilities that the current rates subsidize customers with solar panels at the expense of other customers. Solar industry officials dispute that claim.

How much or whether the rates would change is unknown. That would be determined by the PSC if the legislation passes and is signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The exposure of the involvement of FP&L, which is Florida’s largest electric utility, by the Miami Herald resulted in complaints from the utility about the story’s fairness, but the utility has not denied its involvement in pushing the legislation.

The first hearing in the Senate will occur Tuesday before the Regulated Industries Committee. Sen Ben Albritton of Wauchula is a member of the committee.

Its first stop in the House is the Tourism Energy and Infrastructure Subcommittee. No legislators from this region sit on that panel.