FILE - Florida Sen. Joe Gruters

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota

Gov. Ron DeSantis said in September that he wanted the Legislature during its 2020 session to raise the state’s $10,000 fine for spilling raw sewage into waterways by 50 percent.

With the start of the 2020 legislative session one week away, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, the state’s GOP Chairman, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, obliged.

The pair filed companion bills – Senate Bill 1450 and House Bill 1091 – that include DeSantis’ proposed $5,000 increase in fines for sewage spills of more than 100,000 gallons, among other penalties and provisions.

“Florida is not Florida without its abundant natural waterways,” Gruters said. “Water is at the heart of the state’s terrific quality of life, and what makes tourism the backbone of our economy.”

The measures are aimed at municipalities since most sewage treatment plants are owned and operated by local governments.

“Local governments have illegally dumped 3 billion gallons of sewage into Florida’s waterways over the past ten years – approximately 100 million in the past year alone,” Fine said.

Gruters and Fine filed similar companion bills during the 2019 session that would have levied fines by the gallon, penalties endorsed by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida Nature Center.

The $10,000 fine for each sewage spill is not costly enough to encourage local governments to invest in upgrading treatment plants, the lawmakers said, echoing DeSantis’ call for measures that “bite.”

“Right now, it’s a slap on the wrist and move on,” DeSantis said when he introduced his 2020 environmental objectives in Naples. “Some of these municipalities, it’s cheaper for them to pay a fine and spew all this sewage into the waterways, because it’s the cost of doing business.”

Both Gruter and Fine noted constituents in their districts have been subjected to repeated sewage spills over the last few years.

Fine recalled that after Hurricane Irma in September 2017, untreated sewage poured into Brevard County waterways for 35 days.

“It happens several times a month in Brevard County, and every time, my constituents are justifiably enraged,” he said. “They are demanding action and this legislation does exactly that.”

Fine said the state is spending “billions trying to clean up our polluted waterways” while local governments are not keeping pace by investing in treatment plant upgrades.

“If local governments refuse to join us in that fight by maintaining their sewer systems, all of our efforts are for naught,” he said. “This legislation will send a strong message to local politicians by increasing their penalties for refusing to maintain these critical systems.”

The 2019 bills were opposed by municipalities, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties, which maintain any increase in fines would be paid by taxpayers and ratepayers and divert money from being spent on upgrades.

Fine said the goal of increasing fines is not to be punitive but to create an incentive to avoid spills.

“Our hope is there are not fines,” he said. “The goal is not to generate revenue through fines. The goal is to have local governments maintain their sewage systems.”

Last year’s bills included an alternative to monetary fines with a provision that allowed municipalities to invest $2 in system upgrades for every $1 incurred in fines.

This year’s versions do not include that provision although the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has the statutory authority to negotiate consent orders and waive fines under certain circumstances, such as its 2017 arrangement with Fort Lauderdale.

Facing $339,577 in fines, the DEP instead stipulated that the city develop a plan to implement $117.5 million in required sewer system repairs and improvements through 2026.

In December, however, Fort Lauderdale suffered six sewage spills, including one that dumped an estimated 126.9 million gallons of sewage – 75 million more than Broward County’s previous largest spill – that was eventually pumped into the Tarpon River to keep it from seeping into homes.