DeSantis vetoes bill to improve public warnings about bacteria contaminating beaches, public waterways (2024)

Gov. Ron DeSantis has vetoed legislation that would have required health warnings about bacterial contamination and made it easier for swimmers, boaters and anyone else in or around the ocean and waterways to learn if there’s something dangerous in the water.

Under the current, haphazard system, people sometimes don’t know about things like sewage that can flow into the water after torrential rains or stem from broken pipes and other spills.

The Safe Waterways Act (House Bill 165) would have required:

  • Health advisories from the state Department of Health if water quality off beaches and in other water bodies, such as lakes and rivers, did not meet standards, according to a House staff analysis.

  • Closing access to affected waters if deemed necessary “to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”

  • Cities, towns, villages or counties to notify the state of contamination and post signs in the area.

“We need to let people know as best we can what’s in the water before they jump in,” said state Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, a Palm Beach County Republican. “We need to be able to look it up easily.”

Gossett-Seidman said said she’d like to see a website that shows all beach warnings and closures, a toll-free number people can call to check (she suggested 426, for H20) and “a big beach sign reporting what’s happening.”

Shark attacks get massive public attention. But Gossett-Seidman said her research found that more people are sickened — and die — from vibrio, a bacteria that can flourish in coastal waters, especially in warmer months, than from shark attacks. It can lead to other diseases, including skin rashes, lesions and lung issues.

A legislative analysis said illnesses can come from various kinds of exposure, including swallowing bacteria-contaminated water or even breathing in water mist.

The results may not appear until three or four days later, and people may have no idea what caused the illness. “It’s not like if you get bit by a shark — you know what happened. But if you get sick four days later, you may not tie it in,” Gossett-Seidman said.

“Basically we don’t have a very good system right now when water is contaminated for alerting the public in a timely manner,” said state Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach County Democrat. “We wanted to put it into law so that the public would know when there’s contamination and when they shouldn’t be swimming in any public bathing water, including the ocean.”

Berman and Gossett-Seidman worked with state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade County Republican, and state Rep. Lindsay Cross, a Pinellas County Democrat.

“We had four women, two Democrats and two Republicans,” Berman said. “We called ourselves the ‘Water Women Warriors.’”

The measure passed the Florida Senate and Florida House with unanimous support from all Republicans and all Democrats.

“Unfortunately this collaborative work did not result in a new state law, and as Floridians, their families, and tourists flock to the beach this summer, they will not know if it is truly safe to go in the water because of the veto,” the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental organization that works to protect and preserve water and beaches, posted on its Website.

“I’m not sure what happened since we ended session, because we had no ‘no’ votes, and certainly entertained everyone’s opinion that we could,” Gossett-Seidman said.

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Personal experience

On July 4, 2023, Gossett-Seidman jumped into polluted water in the Intracoastal Waterway — before there was any kind of public warning about a major sewage spill from a ruptured pipeline.

Gossett-Seidman, her husband and a friend went by boat to see some of the areas where she obtained state funding for mangrove and seagrass plantings to help clean up the Lake Worth Lagoon.

“On the way back, it was 95 degrees,” she said. She’s an avid swimmer, so her husband stopped the boat and she jumped in — and right away realized something was wrong because the water was like pea soup.

She then discovered where workers were dealing with a sewage spill — something the public hadn’t been told about.

Berman, who represents some of the same territory as Gossett-Seidman, also cited last summer’s Boynton Beach sewage leak. “It took quite a long time for the notifications to be made and for the public to be made aware of that, and we don’t want that to repeat itself. We want everything to be done within 24 hours,” she said.

An estimated 15 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Intracoastal Waterway because of a broken 20-inch sanitary sewer pipe that began July 3 near East Ocean Avenue in Boynton Beach.

Eventually, people were cautioned to avoid the water in the area because it posed health risks from fecal matter in the water. A Department of Health release at the time warned that, “Anyone who comes into contact with the water in this area should wash thoroughly, especially before eating or drinking” and cited particular risks for children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

Reactions

Surfrider said it was “deeply disappointed” in DeSantis’ veto.

“This bill would have kept beachgoers safe and informed regarding the risks of swimming when recreating in Florida’s beach waters,” Surfrider said.

It argued that the problem of “untreated sewage into coastal waters has resulted in harmful algal blooms, fish kills, and public health crises for beachgoers throughout the state. This crisis has worsened in recent years with the compounding impacts of climate change, with emerging water quality concerns like vibrio, a flesh-eating bacteria, reported in areas where water is contaminated by wastewater and sewage spills.”

Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the DeSantis appointee, who heads the state Department of Health, which would have been given responsibilities by the legislation, said he didn’t want any part of it.

“Not interested in DOH having unilateral power to close Florida’s beaches, & neither are Floridians. DOH already monitors Florida’s beaches, & localities can make the best decisions for the operation of their beaches. Thanks for the veto, Governor!” Ladapo wrote on social media.

Ladapo is widely known, and controversial, for his stands against COVID-19 vaccines, masks, other pandemic containment measures, and gender-affirming care for transgender children. He also appeared on the campaign trail in support of DeSantis’ unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Who’s in charge

DeSantis, in a veto message late Wednesday afternoon, said the legislation had a “fatal infirmity:” It would have taken away responsibility from local governments and given it to the state.

“It grants authority to the Florida Department of Health (DOH) to close beaches, waterways and swimming pools. Health Departments like DOH can serve a valuable function, but they should not be vested with the power to supersede local jurisdictions regarding the operation of beaches,” DeSantis wrote, adding that “this grant of power to DOH over Florida beaches is ill-advised.”

That’s a notable argument coming from DeSantis, who routinely signs laws that take away authority from local governments and impose state mandates on local communities.

“In the last three or four years (the state has) done more to preempt local government’s ability to function. … We continually preempt local government,” Berman said. “To me that is a very contradictory position to what has been done by the Florida Legislature and approved by the governor.”

Another attempt

One of the more perplexing elements of the veto was the politics. The legislation was a top priority for Gossett-Seidman, who has championed water quality issues.

She’s in her first term in the Legislature, having won a relatively close 2022 election (52%-48%). She faces a well-funded Democratic challenger, Jay Shooster, this year in a district where 35% of the voters are Republicans, 33% Democrats, 30% no party affiliation and 3% in minor parties.

Gossett-Seidman said she’ll be working with stakeholders over the summer and would introduce a new version of the legislation for the 2025 session, assuming she’s reelected.

“We will just go back with everyone’s input: the governor’s office, the legislators, the environmental people,” she said. “We will get it sorted out,” she said.

Information from Sun Sentinel archives and the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com and can be found @browardpolitics on Bluesky, Threads, Facebook and Mastodon.

DeSantis vetoes bill to improve public warnings about bacteria contaminating beaches, public waterways (2024)

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