October 31, 2014

Editor's Page

Stirrings on the Water Front

Mark R. Howard | 2/1/2005
A skirmish over water in southwest Florida may offer a good preview of bad things to come in Florida. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Victor Hull reported recently how North Port in southern Sarasota County is on the verge of outgrowing its water supply. To keep up with expected demand from new residents, North Port is demanding that its regional public utility, which is jointly owned by Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, take away water-pumping capacity that's earmarked for other communities in the region and give it to North Port. The town's officials, Hull reports, believe their town is legally and morally entitled to more water and may go to court to try to force the utility's hand.

North Port, a town of 31,000 spread over 100 square miles, has grown promiscuously and irresponsibly by courting developers and annexing land. The idea that its success at sprawl gives it some moral right to more water is a little like the glutton who claims he's entitled to an extra piece of pie because his stomach's gotten bigger from overeating.

North Port's problem, however, is much bigger than North Port. Statewide, Florida's communities are growing into each other and will continue to do so, regardless of whether their growth policies are strong, moderate, whorish or non-existent. Friction over water will become more common and costly, and North Port-type claims will proliferate unless the state reorganizes the way it plans and develops its water resources.

Picture, a few years hence, a dozen lawsuits around the state with 20 or 30 communities locked in that's-MY-water combat. The potential expense and disruption to the state's economy and social fabric is more than considerable. And any environmentalists who think the environment would come out ahead in that scenario are fooling themselves.

The first significant nudge toward change came from the Council of 100, which in 2003 brought up an old idea, a state water board, to coordinate water policy statewide and ensure an adequate supply to handle growth. The council had to dive for cover after some decided to believe that it was really just scheming for a way to pipe water from the sylvan glades of north Florida to greedy developers in the south. An unduly outraged citizenry gave the state a taste of the passions that even potential water wars can generate.

It was all quiet on the water front for a while, but the process may get another nudge this legislative session -- both in the Senate and the House. State Rep. Donna Clarke, a Sarasota Republican (her district doesn't include North Port) who now heads the House's Water and Natural Resources Committee, says she has two main goals: She'd like the Legislature to make it completely clear, legally, who owns the state's water: i.e., the state. "In today's world, it's not a personal property right," she says.

Clarke also says she'd like to start looking for a funding source that would pay for increasing water supply -- possibly by removing the sales tax exemption on bottled water or by taking a piece of documentary stamp tax collections, she says. Ultimately, Clarke believes, the state should redefine the role of the water management districts -- something the Council of 100 advocated -- and create regional water boards comprised of local political officials, water management district executives and others that would take over the process of ensuring sufficient supply.

It was interesting to hear a Republican talk openly of both new "funding sources" -- taxes -- and creating a new board-bureaucracy. Ideological ironies aside, however, some of what Clarke favors just seems unwise. Regional boards are a horrible idea and seem mostly like a way to anesthetize potential political opponents in water-rich areas. First, the thinking seems to be, remind them that it's the state's water. Then, put them on boards with some neighbors in their region and teach them how to share it nicely, without squawking.

It also seems a mistake to tinker much with the water management districts, which have provided the science that's helped protect the state's most sensitive areas and have guided many good decisions on water resources.

But Clarke and the Legislature are right to begin focusing on developing supply -- and on creating a funding source to finance it. This is a crisis that isn't a crisis yet but will happen fast when it happens. As Clarke says, "If nobody else moved to Florida starting tomorrow, we need to be doing long-range planning for new sources of water and for cleaning up what we have. We need to make the pie bigger and the existing pie more edible."

And ultimately, there will have to be some device or stratagem to create the political will for the powers who control local and regional water authorities to price water appropriately -- there are presently no political or financial incentives to make water cost what it should.

No one likes to say it, but it shouldn't really be a secret that water is going to get significantly more expensive. Economics is a dismal science, but when fast-growing demand meets a limited supply, some results are predictable. And water should cost more, both to reflect its real value and to stimulate technologies for conservation and reuse -- cisterns and other large and small-scale storage, stormwater reuse, etc.

If the process of water becoming more expensive proceeds smoothly, Florida will be able to grow in a healthy way -- both economically and environmentally. If not, welcome to North Port.

Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at mhoward@floridatrend.com.

Tags: Editor's column, Around Florida, Energy & Utilities

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