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State water board could be on agenda

The Council of 100 business leaders does want a commission to examine a statewide distribution system. The Legislature could take it up in October.

Published August 16, 2003

Florida needs a statewide water commission to route water from rural to booming areas and encourage private water development on state land, an influential business group said in recommendations to the governor.

The proposals, developed in private meetings over the past year by a task force of the Council of 100, call for wide-ranging changes in Florida water laws.

The issue could come up during a special session of the Legislature as soon as October. But one powerful state lawmaker doubts a special session is the place for debating such sweeping change.

"If we're going to get into all that water-brokering and restructuring, you're going to have to make a really strong argument about why we need to do that on such short notice," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said water is a possible topic for the special session, but no decision has been made on whether the Council of 100's recommendations would be part of such a discussion.

The Council of 100 is a group of statewide business leaders who advise the governor on policies ranging from education to civil service. Their membership and issues are approved by the governor.

In May 2002, the council's chairman, developer and Republican fundraiser Al Hoffman, appointed a water task force and tapped Clearwater developer Lee Arnold to lead it. He spent the past year spearheading the work of a 30-member task force comprised of developers, agricultural interests and newspaper publishers.

Arnold showed Gov. Jeb Bush a PowerPoint presentation of the recommendations July 29. A Council of 100 memo says Bush had no objections, but a spokesman for the governor said only that the discussion was at the early stages.

The memo says that after task force leaders confer with top legislators, a final report would be unveiled for the public next month.

Arnold's PowerPoint presentation, obtained by the Times this week, makes it clear the task force believes the state is approaching a crisis in providing enough water to keep pace with booming growth in Central and South Florida.

However, Arnold noted in internal task force papers that most of Florida's 16-million residents are unaware there is such a crisis.

"Is there a way to convince the masses the problem is real???" he wrote in June.

The presentation to Bush noted a state analysis that says Floridians used 7.2-billion gallons of water a day in 1995. Demand is expected to grow to 9.1-billion gallons by 2020, primarily in Central and South Florida.

As a result, the task force recommended that Bush "put water supply on the same level of importance as protection of the environment" by establishing a Florida Water Supply Commission, seven people appointed by Bush.

Among other duties, the commission would "identify water stress areas and designate water supply service areas," the proposal states.

The commission ought to also "consider a statewide water distribution system" that would route supplies "from water-rich areas to water-poor areas," the proposal states.

In speeches, Arnold has suggested one such water-rich area would be the Suwannee River region, which he called "the Saudi Arabia of water." However, Suwannee River region officials said they are not keen on dealing away the water being produced by their natural springs and rivers.

"There are other rivers in the state other than the Suwannee that are closer to South Florida," said Jerry Scarborough, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District.

In interviews and e-mails Friday, Arnold defended the proposal.

"We certainly are not trying to start a north-south conflict," he said. "The operative word there is for the water supply board to consider that, to consider what a statewide water distribution system would look like."

Last week, Arnold said the task force did not recommend a statewide water authority. On Friday, he made a distinction between a water authority and a water commission: An authority issues water permits, while a water commission would not. Instead, it would oversee the work of the state's five water management districts, recommend ways to settle disputes over water distribution and plan for future water supply needs.

"I was very direct and truthful to you," he wrote in an e-mail. "Most people think of a water authority as some kind of water control board like in other states."

In its discussion of water-rich and water-poor areas, the proposal includes this line: "Involve the private sector in a public/private solution." Arnold declined to explain that in detail, saying only that it "reflects the governor's view that the invisible hand of free enterprise ought to be looked at at every level of government."

In another section of the proposal, however, Arnold recommended allowing private companies to use state property to produce water. That would generate money for the state.

"We lease public lands for tree farming and other ventures, why not lease lands for water supply development?" the proposal states. "Water on and within state land should be an income generator for the state."

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida called that proposal "highly objectionable." After all, he said, "the very reason you have public lands is to protect the resource."

He condemned all of the proposals as "based on the idea of stimulating Florida's golf course economy" without concern for the environment.

But Arnold contended that only by securing a water supply for future growth could the environment be protected. "If the state of Florida does not meet future demands for water and the citizens are faced with unemployment and protracted recession," he wrote in an e-mail, "the environment will be the first to lose."

[Last modified August 16, 2003, 01:47:29]

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