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Tampa Tribune: Putting water on the front burner

Monday, December 16, 2013

It’s too early to say whether the 2014 session of the Florida Legislature will be the “Year of Water,” but momentum is building in that direction. And if correct policy decisions are made, the state will be in a stronger position to protect the environment, including Florida’s wondrous natural springs, strengthen the economy, and bolster agriculture.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam recently noted that the environmental “devastation” on both sides of the state caused by the release of high volumes of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee this year has created “momentum” among lawmakers to fund water resource projects and discuss water policy next session.

In addition, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who has been chosen by colleagues to succeed House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel after the 2014 session, has said that water issues will be a top priority during his two-year term overseeing the House.

Putting water on the front burner is essential to Florida’s future. Water shortages are common in the Tampa Bay area and other parts of the state, as are water use restrictions. And too often, piecemeal approaches are taken that fail to address the challenges the state has in meeting the water needs of the public, agricultural interests and businesses, especially in times of drought.

The Legislature hurt matters by gutting the state’s Growth Management Act, which required a statewide planning perspective in addition to local and regional reviews.

This renewed attention to water issues comes as the state Senate considers a $220 million plan to reduce pollution and redirect water in South Florida. But Crisafulli, in comments to reporters recently, was right to caution that officials shouldn’t get “too laser-focused” on one region — that water issues need to be looked at “from the standpoint of the overall needs of the state.”

Those needs, he noted, include agriculture, drinking water, cleaning up Florida’s polluted natural springs, and helping the troubled Apalachicola River region.

Putnam also has stressed that other areas need help as well. “There is an extraordinary bias to the south at the expense of the springs and Apalachicola Bay,” he said last month.

The South Florida water improvement plan includes $20 million to clean up Indian River Lagoon, and proposals to clean water that flows into Lake Okeechobee from the Orlando area. Meanwhile, Putnam’s proposed 2014 budget includes $10 million to target “nutrient reduction practices” and $5.2 million to address farming nutrient runoff into freshwater springs in North Florida — a major problem.

The Department of Environmental Protection is requesting $75 million for Everglades’ restoration, $15 million for springs cleanup and $40 million to purchase environmental lands, among other projects.

Locally of note, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, whose businesses include a large chicken farming operation in east Pasco County, is drafting legislation calling for a comprehensive study on expanding “the beneficial use of reclaimed water, storm water and excess surface water …”

The study would include evaluating the feasibility of building “regional storage features” on public or private land that could store such water for use in agricultural irrigation, public water supply and wetland restoration, among other uses.

Although building regional facilities may be cost prohibitive, it only makes sense to put to use the tens of millions of gallons of treated wastewater and other water that is dumped into Florida waters. Doing so could reduce groundwater pumping and greatly help farmers and ranchers.

Crisafulli also says the state needs to return to investing in local water projects — a worthwhile endeavor that was severely curtailed during the state’s economic downturn. Alternative water supply projects in the Tampa Bay area have resulted in a huge decrease in groundwater pumping that had damaged the environment.

We cannot afford to return to the days of groundwater overpumping, which is why the state needs to help communities develop water projects. Nor should lawmakers fall for a water-supply scheme that surfaces every few years in Florida — tapping water-rich areas, such as North Florida, to satisfy the thirst of regions that have poorly managed growth. The local-sources first law must be followed.

This new emphasis on water issues and the environment will greatly benefit Florida. Though surrounded by water, Florida has major water challenges. Comprehensive water policies that include all facets of water use are needed instead of the reactionary approach of the past.

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