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Healthy Beaches bill goes into effect today

By Staff | Jul 1, 2009

“Honestly, I am quite delighted.”
That was the reaction from Sanibel Mayor Mick Denham after he learned last week HB 707, better known among proponents of clean waterways as the Healthy Beaches bill, was officially signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Charlie Crist.
HB 707, sponsored by the Florida House of Representatives, takes effect today.
Denham, a longtime champion of water quality, dedicated himself to being the island’s driving force behind the legislation, which came to light following a local beach closure two years ago due to significant contamination in the Gulf waters.
“The reason for the Healthy Beach program was nothing more than to say, ‘Look, when a pollution occurs on the beaches and closes them down, the DEP and the health department are going to do more than say we have a contamination,'” he said. “This program basically says the DEP needs to go and be detectives to find out where it’s coming from and issue a statement to the public about where the source of the contamination is.”
According to Denham, the consequences of beach closures extend far beyond the confines of bummed out beach enthusiasts and greatly affect Sanibel and Captiva’s delicate tourist economy.
“If you get a contamination on the beaches, everybody in this nation hears about it, and suddenly, you get people calling the chamber of commerce saying ‘Is it safe to visit Sanibel and Captiva?'” he said. “Every year, for a week or so, usually when it’s rainy, we have to close our beaches and everybody starts questioning whether they should come to Sanibel and Captiva for their vacation.”
After Crist signed the bill into law, positive reactions from across the state came pouring in.
State Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, called the new law “an elegant example of how protecting and sustaining the natural environment enhances the business/economic environment.”
“In Florida, beaches are a big deal,” he said in a prepared statement. “In Southwest Florida, indeed in all of our coastal communities, our economy is largely dependent on tourism. And our tourism economy is dependent on keeping our pristine environment clean and healthy.”
In September 2007, Bowman’s Beach and Blind Pass Beach were closed to swimming because of contamination in the Gulf waters.
Beach closures remained in effect for three weeks, resulting in tremendous revenue losses by area hotels, restaurants and shops. The impact the closures had on the local economy was immediate and devastating.
Now with the Healthy Beaches bill, the Department of Environmental Protection is required to investigate wastewater treatment facilities within a one-mile radius of any beach affected by an advisory issued by the Department of Health that prohibits swimming.
When the DEP completes its investigation, it is required to notify the relevant local government whether a wastewater treatment facility experienced an incident which may have contributed to the contamination and the resulting health advisory.
The bill also authorizes departments to assign certain responsibilities and functions relating to public swimming pools and bathing places to multicounty independent special districts under specified conditions.
“If these provisions had been in force in the fall of 2007, the situation on Sanibel could have been resolved within days instead of weeks, without the red tape,” Aubuchon said.
“This bill was designed to help keep our beaches clean and free of pollutants,” Denham said Tuesday. “It was supposed to get through (the Senate) last year, but it didn’t. We did a lot of hard work to get this through, and it finally did.”
Words of praise also came from local groups who supported the bill throughout its journey from Sanibel to Tallahassee.
“The PURRE Water Coalition would like to extend our thanks and congratulations to Sanibel Mayor Mick Denham for his leadership in this effort and to Rep. Gary Aubuchon for his sponsorship of this important legislation,” said Dan Wexler, PURRE public policy director. “This is a significant step towards protection of our water and beaches.”
Denham added that the passage of HB 707 is significant because it marks the first piece of state legislation to originate from the city of Sanibel.
“It was a long journey, but throughout the process we had a lot of support from the entire community,” he said. “This bill will help keep our beaches the way we want them. Clean beaches and Sanibel have always worked together well.”