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Raw sewage and raw politics: A toxic mix in Tallahassee | Steve Bousquet

South Florida Sun Sentinel - 1/17/2020

Long before aging sewer pipes began rupturing all over Fort Lauderdale, state lawmakers in Tallahassee were demanding heftier fines against polluters -- including cities.

That’s because the nightmare that recently saw 113 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the Tarpon River and on the streets of Rio Vista is not isolated to Broward County.

In St. Petersburg, for example, nearly 200 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage spilled into Tampa Bay in 2015 and 2016. In Brevard County last month an estimated 180,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled in Viera. Gatehouse Media reported last year that since 2009, nearly 23,000 sewage spills occurred in Florida, releasing 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, including more than 370 million gallons of untreated sewage.

From Gov. Ron DeSantis on down, there’s a growing sentiment in Tallahassee that local officials have neglected their infrastructure needs for far too long and that the laws on the books aren’t tough enough to change their behavior.

“Local politicians are refusing to do their jobs,” Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, told the Sun Sentinel. “They love to talk about home rule, but then when we give them the chance to do it, they don’t actually do it.”

He filed a bill (HB 1091) that would increase from $10,000 to $15,000 the penalty for illegal discharges each day. Penalties for violating state rules or orders would jump from $50,000 to $75,000 a day.

Another version of Fine’s bill faltered last year, but the governor has since added his powerful voice to this debate.

“Those that spew untreated wastewater into Florida’s water bodies need to be deterred from doing so by appropriate penalties,” DeSantis said in his State of the State address to the Legislature Tuesday. “Too many municipalities have failed to invest in needed upgrades to their water infrastructure, in part because it is cheaper to violate the law and pay a nominal fine. This is unacceptable and needs to change.”

Fine predicts a different result this session. “With the support of the most popular governor in America, I think our odds are pretty good,” he said. (According to Morning Consult, DeSantis is the seventh most popular governor in the country).

What happened in Fort Lauderdale was a preventable environmental outrage. But when state politicians use it to score political points as part of a broader agenda to discredit cities and counties, it will call into question their motives.

Long before the pipes blew, politicians in Tallahassee already had it in for local governments. The spills have only made things more antagonistic. The crowd in the Capitol is mostly Republican and the people in charge at many City Halls are Democrats. Gee, what a coincidence.

But not so fast, says Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, who represents coastal Fort Lauderdale. He criticized city officials for years for shifting money from a water-and-sewer fund to other programs, but he has reservations about hitting city taxpayers in the pocketbook.

“I’m not quite sure I want to throw the book at them money-wise,” LaMarca said, “but I want to be sure they’re going to re-invest that money.”

A very different perspective on this problem is offered by Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek. She has filed a bill (HB 147) that directs the state to conduct a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind inventory of water infrastructure needs, which is expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars. The project would require estimated replacement costs for pipes at the end of their usable life.

Jacobs’ strategy, which has Republican crossover support in the Senate -- a good sign -- is that the state and local governments should not be adversaries, but partners in a long-range effort to rebuild aging infrastructure in a state with 1,200 miles of coastline and facing grave threats from sea-level rise.

“The only way we’re going to solve these problems is with a two-pronged approach,” Jacobs told the Sun Sentinel. “This is a huge problem and we don’t know how bad it is.”

Steve Bousquet is a Sun Sentinel columnist. Contact him at sbousquet@sunsentinel or at (850) 567-2240.

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