The race to become Florida’s agriculture commissioner has received little media notice, but the winner of the campaign will play an important role in the debate over efforts to protect Florida’s water quality. Neither major party candidate, though, has expressed support for the EPA’s efforts to regulate the amount of waste dumped in Florida waterbodies, and one — Republican candidate Adam Putnam — has in fact led efforts to block those rules.

Along with the governor, attorney general and state CFO, the commissioner of agriculture acts as a member of the Florida cabinet. As such, the commissioner has the authority to rule on appeals challenging regulations issued by state agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection. According to the agriculture commissioner’s website, the winner of next week’s election will oversee “state land-buying programs, clemency issues and direct the operations of several state agencies.”

After the EPA initially signed a consent decree, agreeing to set legal limits for nutrients entering Florida waters, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and its current head, Commissioner Charles Bronson, objected. Bronson went so far as to say that if the rules go live, “We may not have much in the way of farming left in the state of Florida.”

The next agriculture commissioner will have an opportunity to either help heal Florida waters or side with the industries blamed for polluting them.

Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, a fifth-generation farmer currently serving in Congress, has been outspoken in his efforts to thwart the implementation of a strict set of numeric nutrient standards to govern state water bodies. The standards are being drafted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in conjunction with the EPA, and would essentially require industry polluters to comply with rules concerning the waste they dump into Florida waters. That waste leads to large-scale algal blooms and fish kills.

In August, Putnam was one of 21 members of Florida’s congressional delegation to pen a letter urging the EPA to delay the standards to accommodate more “sound science.” In February, he released a statement on his website detailing the “financial burdens” that would hit the state should the standards go into effect as planned.

In June, Putnam released his “Water Policy Position Paper” (a paid political advertisement you can read in full below) at an Orlando Water Forum. In it, he opined that the process of creating numeric nutrient criteria “needs to return to state control in order to ensure the appropriate regulation is adopted.”

Essentially, the paper alleged that the state Department of Environmental Protection (which has been criticized for not working hard enough to implement the standards) could do a fine job without the help of the EPA.

Scott Maddox, Putnam’s Democratic rival for agriculture commissioner, has been less outspoken on nutrient standards. Though he has yet to announce his position regarding the regulations, he has so far not explicitly sided with industry.

The Sierra Club, an agency instrumental in leading to the implementation of the standards, recently endorsed Maddox as its choice for agriculture commissioner, and the candidate has denounced his opponent’s spotty environmental record. In a September press release, he blasted Putnam’s history of supporting the interests of industry over the environment: “This is a career politician who has been in Washington for a decade and his environmental record has been abysmal. … An environmentalist voting for Putnam is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.”

We contacted the Maddox campaign for information on his stance on EPA water quality rules, but they did not respond. The “issues” section of Maddox’s website says nothing about the proposed regulations.

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