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Water, growth bill has a chance

By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

David Russell Jr. hopes to tie one on when the 2002 legislative session opens in Tallahassee today.

But that doesn't mean the District 44 representative to the Florida House will be swilling cocktails at Clyde's, the politico-packed watering hole down the street from the state Capitol. Anyone who knows Russell knows he abstains from alcohol.

What it does mean is that Russell will spend much of this spring trying to persuade his colleagues of the need to tie together two public policy issues that have been inexplicably separated for far too long.

Call it a strengthening of the weakest link.

Russell, a 46-year-old Republican from Brooksville, is sponsoring a bill that will make a sweeping change to the state's comprehensive growth plan. House Bill 569 will require local governments to link their planning decisions to the availability of water in their area. That means before county commissioners or city council members approve a housing development, or a shopping mall, or even a school, they must know where the water will come from and how they intend to pay for it. It also means that, if it is available, reused water -- such as that processed at a desalination plant or a wastewater treatment facility -- must be used first before tapping into the freshwater supply.

Directly linking growth to our state's dwindling water supply is a wonderful idea. Had such a rule been in place 20, or even 10 years, ago, Florida would have more water and more money, because millions upon millions of dollars would have been saved fighting the water wars and drought.

And, like most good ideas, it has been tried before.

Helen Spivey, the Crystal River environmental activist who was elected to the District 43 House seat in 1994, sponsored a similar amendment to the state Comprehensive Growth Management Act in 1995. Unfortunately, the amendment got tacked on to a bunch of other legislation that would have done more harm than good to the state comp plan, and never became law.

Spivey worked out the details and was prepared to file the change as a free-standing bill in 1997, but never got the chance because Nancy Argenziano, District 43's current rep, defeated her in the 1996 general election.

Tying water capacity to growth was a radical idea back then, one that developers and the like scoffed at as unneeded and undoable. But that was before an extended drought and some embarrassingly hateful feuds between neighboring counties swayed public opinion, demonstrating to everyone how precious the water supply is.

Now the notion is acceptable, and the bill Russell, along with Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, is shepherding through the House is on the charts with a bullet. And, unlike a similar bill Russell sponsored last year, which died in a Senate committee, this year's version looks like it's going to pass.

Russell says the big difference this year is that he and Byrd formed a consortium of the people who have a stake in its passage. That includes local governments, environmental organizations and state agencies. All those groups see the common sense of tying water use to land planning, Russell said last week. He noted that all other facets of planning laid out in comp plans require concurrency, which is a bureaucrat's word for saying you can't build a shopping mall on a dirt road, or an amusement park where there are no sewer lines.

"The only people who haven't weighed in on this are the developers," Russell said, predicting that even they will be hard-pressed to derail it this time around.

Other legislators like the bill because it places most of the logistical and financial burden on the state's water management districts. The more astute lawmakers also realize that this bill transcends some of the previous feel-good water legislation, such as the so-called "local sources first" law, which deals more with protecting turfs than it does with land-use planning and conservation.

Even Spivey has good things to say about the Russell-Byrd bill.

"It's good. Mine was not nearly as detailed and elaborate as (Russell's)," she said. But while encouraging it, she also asserts that it is only "a start," and is concerned that it will take about six years to implement.

"Will there be anything left at the end of that time?" she asks? "The water management districts all around the state are admitting they have allowed too much pumping. They lack the guts to halt the feeding."

Still, Spivey says, "It is a start, and if there is one thing I have learned over time, it's that you take things in small steps."

Russell acknowledges that the six-year delay is not ideal, but that the water management districts need time to gather reliable scientific data about the water supply. "We would like to see it happen faster, but we need to know exactly how much water is out there before we can dictate to a developer how much water he must supply. Until we determine quantitatively what that is, it would be almost impossible to enforce the law."

To that end, Russell says the legislation provides for oversight at the state Department of Community Affairs, as well as periodic monitoring of the data the water management districts will collect, to ensure that when 2007 rolls around the changes can occur.

This could be the most common-sense approach to growth management and water conservation that has even been considered in Florida. It deserves the public's support.

And if the legislation passes, it might be cause enough for even a teetotaler like Russell to raise a glass in celebration.

-- Jeff Webb is editor of editorials for the Hernando and Citrus Times.

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