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Oct 11, 2003

Florida's water wars have begun. Again.

In the three weeks since a statewide business group recommended changes to Florida's water management structure, opposition to the proposal has been fierce.

Local governments, including Alachua County and the city of Hawthorne, have passed resolutions against the plan, which could privatize a public resource and lead to the transfer of water across county lines.

One prominent North Florida Republican, Senate President James E. King Jr., even compared the idea to regional struggles during emancipation.

"This is as close to North vs. South as you're going to get since the Civil War," the senator told reporters last month.

But as politicians and conservationists continue to debate the fate of Florida's water — by no means a new topic — less hypothetical questions remain: What are the hurdles to a statewide water plan? And could one
be implemented, even if Florida wanted to?

Controversial proposals

Prepared by the Council of 100, last month's report called for a number of changes to state water policy, including the formation of a commission to manage and oversee state supplies; establishment of a water data center; and creation of a science advisory council to assist public and private interests in water-use decision making.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who publicly received the council's recommendations Sept. 25, has taken no formal position on the proposal other than calling it "provocative."

By far its most controversial idea, however, was encouraging public private partnerships that could eventually facilitate a statewide water distribution system.

Lee Arnold, a Tampa Bay real estate broker who chaired the report committee — a private lobbying group that has advised state governors since 1961 — said it was not the council's intention to suggest that springs
and rivers in North Florida would one day quench the thirst of South Florida.

"This whole idea of carting water hundreds and hundreds of miles at this point, in Florida, doesn't make any sense," Arnold told the Florida Times-Union.

But environmentalists and state water-watchers fear that it's the privatization and piping of North Florida water that the council has in mind.

"The Council of 100’s reported recommendation to create a statewide water board that would be tasked with putting water supply on an equal footing with environmental protection would take away local control of
water resources," contends a policy document prepared by the Florida Water Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.

Because of the environmental and economic threats such a plan would create, the state needs to "prohibit inter-basin transfers of water supply" and continue to treat water "as a public resource, not a privately owned
commodity," the water coalition concluded.

Linda Young, southeast regional coordinator of the Clean Water Network in Tallahassee, put it another way:

"We need to be very worried."

Outdated structure

At the heart of the debate is what the council considers an outdated water management structure.

The current five-district system was established with the passage of the 1972 Florida Water Resources Act, authorizing local and regional control of water. With the act, each district was given the authority to regulate,
permit and tax water-usage through a governing board.

The 30-year management structure, which is based on hydrologic boundaries, not political ones, has for the most part served local and regional interests well, North Florida water supply planners say.

For example, the establishment of minimum flows and levels in the Suwannee River Water Management District — which will calculate the lowest level for lakes, rivers and springs at which further withdrawals
would harm the area's ecology — should help protect North Central Florida waterways from over-pumping and drought.

In fact, each water district — including the South Florida Water Management District, which includes the booming population centers of Miami and Fort Lauderdale — has estimated local supplies lasting at least 20 years.

But the Council of 100 contends that long-term plans are not being met, and controlling water at the regional levels may be to blame.

Because current law requires governments to fully explore and develop "local sources" before investing in water resources beyond regional boundaries, "districts, counties, and municipalities think they own the water
in their areas, and must prevent access by any other district or locality," the council's report concluded.

"Thus, water is less seen locally and regionally as a state resource," limiting possibilities for the private development and distribution of new water sources.

It's a policy shift that advocates of growth and development have suggested before.

In 1993, for example, former Gov. Claude Kirk formed a private company to try to pipe water from the Silver Springs tourist attraction.

Three years later, still bent on the idea of privatizing water, Kirk pressed top lawmakers to explore the possibility of pumping water from an ocean floor spring off the coast of North Florida, and pumping it to Pinellas County.

"This is definitely needed," Kirk told reporters at the time. "Privatizing is the order of the day. Folks need water in the southern part of the state."

Kirk's assertions seven years ago, coupled with the council's recent recommendations, trouble many North Florida environmentalists, however.Currently, water is considered a public resource, with no value ascribed to it. When homeowners pay a Gainesville Regional Utilities water bill, for example, they are paying for the cost of the service, not the water that bubbles from within the Floridan Aquifer.

If the Council of 100's recommendations were adopted, critics contend, the state's water could become available to the highest bidder, removing local control of a resource and putting it in the hands of private corporations.

"The council task force has struggled to describe problems with the present governance system of five water districts," Svenn Lindskold, former director of the Bell-based Save Our Suwannee advocacy group, wrote in
an Oct. 6 response to the report, "Improving Florida's Water Supply Management Structure."

"But they flail away ineffectively, arguing without good data or logic for what they should hope to gain to their own benefit, not the welfare of the citizens of Florida.

Lindskold concluded: "This report would gain little attention or standing were it not the well-dressed product of politically influential individuals."

Privatizing issues

Regardless of one's view on the state's current water governance system, or who's driving the call for change, the most troubling of the council's recommendations for many is the concept of privatizing water, and moving
it from north to south.

"When we talk about sending away our water, we're talking about a major impact to our ecosystems," Wes Skiles, a veteran cave diver and member of the Florida Springs Task Force, told The Sun recently.

"Springs would stop flowing. River water levels would be much lower, causing stagnation."

Many point to Tampa Bay as a historic example of how bad things can get.

Beginning in the 1970s, explosive growth in the Tampa Bay area prompted the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority — now known as Tampa Bay Water — to move north in its search for additional sources of
groundwater.

Their hunt took them to Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, where three massive well fields — Cypress Creek, Starkey and Cross Bar Ranch — were developed to meet future needs.

But by the 1980s, pumping of the bay area's groundwater had exceeded the rate it was being replenished, and many of the region's wetlands and lakes were going dry.

As a result, residents were forced to re-drill private wells, while others, who years before had bought homes with lake views, had no choice but to sell their waterless properties, and move away.

Technical challenges

During the next two decades, Tampa Bay-like problems could become more widespread, as demands on fresh water are expected to jump from a consumption rate of 7.2 billion gallons per day to 9.1 billion gallons per
day.

To meet the expected increase in demand, regional utilities have already invested significant resources in the exploration and development of new water sources.

Tampa Bay Water, for example, estimates it will spend $316 million in the design and construction of two saltwater desalination plants, including one capable of producing 25 million gallons of water per day.

But the costs of new technologies such as saltwater desalination have yet to prove their worth, water engineers contend.

As such, when considering how to best meet the state's future water supply needs, some water engineers say a statewide transfer system may not be such a bad idea, if considered from a purely engineering point of view.

"What you'd have to do is determine the cost of water," said Louis Motz, director of the Florida Water Resources Research Center at the University of Florida, who stressed he has not endorsed the council's plan.

"And that would be limited by the hydrologic and environmental constraints. But technically, there might be some instances where it would be feasible."

Don Polmann, director of science and engineering for TBW, agreed.

"I don't think there is any technical obstacle" to an inter-regional piping system on a statewide level, he said.

"Pipelines over long distances can be designed. There is nothing peculiar about the water quality issues — it just needs to be transported and treated."

But despite his optimism, and his region's projected future water needs, Polmann said he doesn't expect such a system to be built in Florida anytime soon.

"It would require a shift in the philosophy over Florida's water," Polmann said of any attempts to install a statewide water-sharing system.

Young, of the Clean Water Network, on the other hand, said she worries that the change in thinking has already arrived.

"I think the governor is very serious about it," she said. "What we have seen in the past with the Council of 100, when Bush wants to do some radical policy change, he calls in the council."

Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.