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Sunshine State News: Move Over, Health Care: Florida’s Biggest Future Challenge is Water

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Water could be the biggest challenge Florida faces over the next 20 years.

Florida’s water infrastructure is in dire need of help, Florida Water Advocates (FWA) told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday.

The state relies on water to propel its two most lucrative industries: tourism and agriculture. And, that’s on top of what’s needed to quench the needs of Florida’s growing population, a segment tied to a third economic driver in Florida – construction.

But, with its critical need for water and the economic consequences of it, Florida has only invested 0.2 percent of its budget on water over the past five years. Frank Bernardino, of FWA, said the state “got out to a bang” after it implemented a dedicated revenue source for water sustainability in 2005, under SB 444. But, even in the good years, the funding was a mere 0.7 percent of total state spending. When the fiscal crisis hit, he said, water was one of the first items to be cut.

Now, Florida is looking down the barrel of a fiscal pounding over the next decade. Upcoming regulations and essential improvements to Florida’s water systems are estimated to cost tens of billions. Cardno Entrix, a Florida-based water consulting company, calculated it will cost $1 billion to $3.2 billion to implement federal water mandates. But, that pales in comparison to the nearly $25 billion for drinking and wastewater treatment facilities needed within a decade, along with a further $7 billion for repairs to delivery systems.

The question is: where will the money come from? FWA, which is currently working with House and Senate leadership on these challenges, believes the transportation model provides the answer for future planning. It identifies a recurring funding source, plans for its growth and provides a road map for communities to know when things will be available.

While water quality grabs much of the state’s headlines, water quantity is a problem that must also be addressed. The group warns of the perils of competition if new water sources are not cultivated. Although the state is constantly talking about water, said Lee Killinger, executive director of FWA, it is in terms of issues like litigations, nutrients, funding and permitting. He says Florida needs to also focus on taking steps to have adequate supplies of clean water for all sectors that need it, since competition between users, and even between states, has become fierce.

“When it comes to water, there are only losers when it comes to competing,” echoed Bernardino.

Domestic water usage has surpassed agriculture as Florida’s biggest user, according to Rich Budell, director of Agricultural Water Policy for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “That line won’t flip again,” he said. “Agricultural water use over [the] last decade has been flat – it’s a good indication of agriculture’s water conservation.”

Nevertheless, competition is inevitable unless measures are taken. While FWA is adamant they are not recommending that funds be pulled from other trust funds, they believe the answer is in a dedicated funding source for water alone.

“Water is an essential part of our economic growth and future,” said Bernardino.

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