Crist signs water bill, tells districts to OK permits in public

Gov. Charlie Crist today signed Senate Bill 2080, a controversial measure that allows permits to be approved by water management district staff without approval by their governing boards.

But Crist, in his transmittal letter accompanying the signed bill, also said he is asking the boards and their executive directors to continue bringing permits to board meetings for approval. He said the bill contained other beneficial provisions including renewing the existence of water districts in state law.

“Accordingly, I am asking the governing boards and executive directors to continue to include surface water and consumptive use permits on all board meeting agendas or other public meetings for discussion and transparency purposes,” Crist wrote.

Crist faced a deadline today to sign or veto the bill or it would become law without his signature. He had raised concerns earlier this month in response to criticism of the bill but hadn’t said whether he would sign it.

Environmental groups called for the governor’s veto because the bill was amended late in the session to allow permits to be approved without a hearing. The bill also was amended to allow some permits for landowners to be extended from 20 to 50 years for alternative water supply projects.

Audubon of Florida Policy Director Eric Draper said he had thought the governor, if he was signing the bill, would give stronger direction.

“Generally we are disappointed with the fact this is now part of the law,” Draper said. “But we are encouraged the districts are still going to have public hearings on the permits. We are going to try to get this (portion of the) law repealed.”

David Still, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, said he thinks the bill signing is a “win-win” for the governor because it preserves good parts of the bill. He said the governor’s direction to the board members, whom he appoints, means that the permit approval process should stay the same.

“The governing board members are set in that position to set policy,” Still said. “The governor’s policy of the state right now is we do business as usual on permits. I think that is going to be the boards direction to staff.”

The South Florida Water Management District will discuss implementation of the bill when it meets later this month. The district “is committed to an open and transparent process,” spokesman Gabe Margasak said.

Sen. JD Alexander, R-Winter Haven and sponsor of the bill, could not be reached for comment.