An algal bloom in the Caloosahatchee River in 2005 (Pic by Florida Water Coalition)

A hotly contested bill that would have allowed certified landscaping professionals to ignore local fertilizer ordinances died in a Tallahassee committee yesterday, despite being passed unanimously by past committees.

The measure (Senate Bill 604) passed the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously in December, but yesterday’s meeting of the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee saw strong opposition from representatives of local governments who argued that ignoring fertilizer rules would lead to a decline in water quality and, because of that, a decline in tourism.

Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah said the bill would be “a job killer,” and a disadvantage to Florida’s $65 billion tourism industry. “Tourists don’t come to see blue green algae, the destruction of sea grasses and dead fish on the beaches.”

One especially problematic issue for many critics was that it would have originally allowed those with “limited certifications” (that, in some cases, could be earned online) to ignore fertilizer blackout periods. Those periods, which occur during rainy season, are meant to lessen the runoff of nutrients into waterways so that algal blooms and fish kills are less common.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, introduced an amendment that would have grandfathered in those counties with blackout periods, but many of the bill’s opponents argued that the amendment contained possible loopholes allowing certified landscapers to avoid local ordinances.

“This grandfathers those in for five years while we can see what the effect of those blackout periods are and whether they really improve water quality,” Latvala said.

State Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, said she still had “heartburn” with some portions of the bill, despite the amendment.

Environmentalists argued that the fertilizer certification process needs to have more oversight from state water management districts and the Department of Environmental Protection. “At minimum, [the bill needs] more desk review,” said Clean Water Action’s Stephanie Kunkel.

The committee voted against the bill in a 4-3 vote. The bill’s House companion, H.B. 421, is still alive and is slated to be taken up in the State Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

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