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Tampa Bay Times: Commissioner Putnam: Keeping Florida’s water flowing

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Florida’s future depends on access to a reliable supply of fresh water. While we’re surrounded by seas and receive abundant rainfall, in some regions during certain times of the year, we are using water faster than Mother Nature can provide it. As our population continues to grow — this year we will surpass New York as the third most populated state in the nation — pressure on our fragile water supplies will increase.

Florida’s environment, economy and quality of life all depend on water. If we want to continue to attract businesses and draw tourists while protecting our environment, we must ensure we have the water supply to meet our needs, not just today, but for our future.

Fortunately, there are solutions. We’ve already taken several steps to protect our available water supply and reduce our water use, where possible, through thoughtful conservation measures. As a result of efforts led by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help agricultural producers implement best practices and use new technologies, Florida agriculture is using less water now than at any time in the past while, at the same time, increasing productivity and efficiency.

The latest irrigation technologies dramatically reduce water use and, when combined with new computerized tools, make it possible for producers to control their irrigation systems over the Internet or with a smartphone. The agriculture department also deploys mobile irrigation labs to advise farmers on how to improve their irrigation system efficiency and irrigation scheduling. Across the state, more than 9 million acres of farm, ranch and nursery lands are taking advantage of the programs the department offers to protect and conserve water resources.

Florida’s farmers should be applauded for their efforts. Because of their hard work and investment, they’ve been able to save nearly 11 billion gallons of water each year. Local communities and public water supply utilities have also implemented successful conservation programs and water reuse projects that are making a difference.

But conservation and reuse alone will not be enough.

The next step must be to explore sources of water that won’t deplete. We must find ways to grow our water supply from sources that are resistant to drought and shortage. Simply put, our water supply options must become more diverse.

Droughtproof water supplies, like seawater desalination, should be more aggressively pursued and included in water planning as future sources of Florida’s water supply. The collection and storage of water for groundwater recharge and as an alternative source of water should continue to be encouraged with incentives to attract private landowner participation.

I am urging policymakers, water utilities, local officials, agricultural producers, business leaders and all Floridians to be proactive and innovative as they consider new water sources and technologies.

A sustainable vision for Florida’s future will require a more comprehensive, long-term water policy and a mechanism to fund it. It will champion the combination of water conservation and innovative alternative water sources. It will ensure all Floridians that water will not become the crisis that today’s leaders failed to prevent.

Adam H. Putnam is Florida’s commissioner of agriculture. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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