A battle over water in northwest Florida has towns feuding and unwilling to compromise.
by Matt Moore
The increase in commercial and residential development in Okaloosa and Walton counties has put a strain on local water sources. Two coastal utilities, the Destin Water Users and the South Walton Utility Co., claim they will face shortages in the near future -- Destin by 2001 and South Walton by 2006. The solution, according to members of both groups, is to get water from the city of Freeport to the north. The two utility companies have filed a joint application with the Northwest Florida Water Management District to pump nearly 5 million gallons a day from a well field just north of Freeport. But Freeport, along with other communities in Walton County, has filed three separate lawsuits to prevent that from happening. "We're concerned that if they can get water, there won't be enough to go around," says Freeport Mayor Mickey Marse. He says the town experienced a similar situation in the 1960s when First American Farms started drawing water for its commercial farming operations. "People then walked into their bathroom one night to turn on the water and none came out," Marse says. "I don't want that to happen again."
The dispute goes to the heart of future growth in Destin, according to Erik Smith, general manager for Destin Water Users. "We need the water because of the population growth," he says. "With the St. Joe Co. preparing to build, along with other developers, increased water service is a must." Smith claims laying a pipeline and drawing water from Freeport wouldn't impact the water levels for anyone. Officials with the water management district, named as a co-defendant in the lawsuits, say if the two utilities draw water from Freeport, it will cause water levels to drop initially about six feet in Freeport and seven feet in DeFuniak Springs, the Walton County seat. By contrast, when First American was drawing between 20 million and 40 million gallons of water a day in the 1960s, the levels fell 10 feet over a 200-square-mile area. Marse disputes some of the district's calculations. "It's a little data and a lot of guesswork," he says. District water management officials note that long-term usage by Destin Water and South Walton Utilities, on top of normal local usage, would lead to drops of about 22 feet within the next 20 years, to levels which could limit the availability of fresh water.
Legislation approved last year strengthens a community's water rights claims by calling for water management districts to take county boundaries into consideration when evaluating requests for water. Normally that would weigh on the joint request filed by Destin, in Okaloosa County, and South Walton, but the legislation listed one exception -- Destin -- a provision put in by Sen. Charlie Clary, a Republican representing both counties.
Opponents of the utilities' plan say Clary did that to protect his constituent base. "It makes perfect sense," says Clayton Adkinson, Freeport city attorney. He says Clary put the exemption in the bill on the day it was approved specifically to shield Destin Water Users. It's a matter of one city trying to outfox another and get more water, according to Adkinson. Attempts at a compromise have proven unsuccessful so far. Mid-Bay Timber & Land, based in Freeport, floated the idea of Freeport granting a permit to the two utilities, so long as they pay for the water and use an existing pipeline. Freeport passed on that idea, and the utilities say they'll seek permits to build their own pipeline. As it stands, says Adkinson, any resolution of the feud isn't likely until the lawsuits are settled, which could take at least "three or four years."
in the news
Apalachicola -- Two Tallahassee men, Lee Willis III and Lou Hill Jr., are remodeling the Grady Market on Water Street in downtown Apalachicola. The building, which was the center of city commerce some 60 years ago, had fallen into disrepair. It now boasts retail shops on the ground floor and luxury apartments up top.
Destin-- A $171,000 dredging project will close a gap created when Hurricanes Earl and Georges opened the breach in the harbor to more than 800 feet. Officials with the state's largest charter fishing fleet say they'll have to find another place to dock if the harbor is not repaired. The city concedes the plan is a temporary fix and is seeking federal and state funds for a more permanent solution.
Fort Walton Beach -- The state of Florida accused seven area companies owned by funeral home operator Loewen Group, based in Vancouver, B.C., of operating "incompetently" and "negligently" under the Florida Funeral and Cemetery Services Act, after the Florida Department of Banking and Finance uncovered bookkeeping irregularities. The company runs three funeral homes in Crestview, three in Fort Walton Beach and one in Niceville. The state also cited three of Loewen's Pensacola funeral homes.
Lynn Haven -- Ipso-ILG, a Belgian manufacturer of industrial and commercial laundry equipment, will move its U.S. headquarters from Baltimore to the Lynn Haven Commerce Park. Ipso announced plans last year to build a manufacturing facility and employ some 125 workers.
Panama City -- The Eye Center of North Florida -- a joint venture between Newberry Eye Clinics and Gulf Coast Eye Clinics -- broke ground on a 7,000-sq.-ft. surgery and eye care center on SR 77. The new facility will create about 80 new jobs.
Pensacola -- IBC Turbo International of Houston inked a $1.5 million deal to set up a center for refurbishing gas turbines. The decision means 30 skilled-labor jobs.
Santa Rosa County -- The state cited Garcon Point Bridge, due to open in May, for environmental violations and fined the bridge authority $134,000. The feds added $25,000 in fines after builder Odebrecht-Metric ignored warnings the bridge would cause erosion. Some call it "Bo's Bridge" after former Florida House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson, who initiated legislation to have it built.
Tallahassee -- Plans for St. Joe Co.'s largest residential and business development to date have been delayed by traffic congestion. Southwood, in southeastern Leon County, a proposed 770-home community with 6 million sq. ft. of commercial, retail and industrial space, could generate too much traffic on at least 40 roads in the area. St. Joe has until April to offer solutions.
Leaders in Jackson County are looking to the service industry to try and replace the 340 jobs lost when Russell Corp. of Alexander City, Ala., shuts down its apparel facilities in Marianna to move operations overseas. The company also is closing its local distribution center, which had employed 42. Local leaders want to attract more chain restaurants to the two I-10 exits that bracket the city and are hopeful deals with Ruby Tuesdays, Microtel Inn and Petro could create 300 new jobs. ... ... In Port St. Joe, crippled by a six-month-long shutdown of Florida Coast Paper Co., workers and residents anticipate a bankruptcy filing by the mill, a joint venture between Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. and BoxUSA. The company missed its first biannual interest payment of $10.5 million in December. Bondholders will likely declare the note in default and demand repayment of $165 million, plus interest. ... ... St. Joe Co. may step in to fill the void in Gulf County left by the mill's shutdown. Company officials were entertaining an ecotourism consultant recently, and there are also plans to build an ecotourism resort along St. Joe Beach. St. Joe owns roughly 90% of Gulf County -- nearly all of it undeveloped and unspoiled.