May 3, 2023 - Climate

Florida Legislature moves to block fertilizer bans

People walk on an empty beach in Naples, Florida.

A beach in the Naples area during a red tide bloom in Southwest Florida in 2018. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Conservation groups and some state lawmakers are warning that the Florida Legislature's recent move to block seasonal fertilizer bans could hamper local efforts to improve water quality. 

Why it matters: The state's waterbodies are already grappling with red tide, a toxic algae bloom known to devastate marine life and repel tourists.

  • Fertilizer runoff is a top contributor to nutrient pollution which stimulates algae, exacerbating blooms and depleting seagrass.

Driving the news: Florida lawmakers tucked a provision into the state budget proposal last weekend that would prevent local officials from banning fertilizers.

Between the lines: The provision, if enacted, only affects counties that haven't imposed a fertilizer restriction yet. It wouldn't impact local officials' ability to enforce existing ordinances that rein in fertilizer use.

  • Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee counties, for instance, all have seasonal bans in place. But county officials couldn't amend those ordinances under the proposal.
  • Maya Burke of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program said the restrictions have helped reduce pollution without placing a fiscal burden on counties.

Of note: The prohibition on fertilizer bans would last until the end of the 2023-24 budget year.

  • The Legislature also proposed earmarking about $6 million of the budget for University of Florida researchers to examine the impact of preventing new fertilizer bans.

Zoom out: Florida ranked first in the nation for total acres of lakes deemed too polluted for swimming and aquatic life, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

  • When looking at polluted estuaries, the state ranked fourth.

What they're saying: "Florida's fertilizer ordinances are a proven and necessary pollution-prevention strategy," state Rep. Lindsay Cross (D-St. Petersburg) said. "This sneak attack will hamstring local communities that have recognized that fertilizer ordinances are cost-effective and work."

  • Our "tourism, economy, public and environmental health have been decimated by blue-green algae and red tide — all fueled by excess fertilizer," she added.

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D-Tampa) told Axios the measure "is bad policy" because seasonal bans are "important to protect Florida's waters," adding that lawmakers did "this in a way to avoid any scrutiny from environmental agencies, water quality advocates" and the public.

  • "They've suppressed everyone's voice on the issue."

The other side: State Rep. Tom Leek (R-Ormond Beach) defended the idea in comments to the Tampa Bay Times, maintaining that all the "language does is give us a period of time to study it so we could make thoughtful decisions."

What we're watching: Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has flexed his line-item veto power in the past, cannot single out and remove the provision because it's protected within an implementing bill.

  • He could, however, strike out the entire appropriation in the budget tied to that restriction.
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