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Developers tout water plan as environmental protection

But a coalition of environmental groups contend a task force's proposal is a "manifesto for destruction."

Published September 26, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Developers Lee Arnold and Al Hoffman faced a roomful of reporters Thursday as they unveiled a plan to change the way Florida supplies water for continued growth.

The plan calls for the governor to appoint a statewide board that could route water from rural to booming areas and encourage private water development on state land.

The plan was developed in private meetings over the past year by a task force of business executives who are part of the Florida Council of 100. The St. Petersburg Times already has reported on details of the plan, but Thursday's announcement marked the formal release.

Arnold, founder of the Clearwater real estate firm Colliers Arnold, contended that guaranteeing a steady supply of water for growing areas is the best way to protect the environment.

If growth stops, "people are out of work, and when they're out of work the environment is in danger," said Arnold, who spearheaded the water study for the council, which is chaired by Hoffman, a Bonita Springs developer.

As for the recommendation of pumping water for a growing area out of land the state bought for environmental preservation, Arnold said, "The environment is not just state lands." Pumping from a state park or a forest in a water-rich area could help protect the environment from overpumping groundwater in another area.

Gov. Jeb Bush was briefed by Arnold in July but declined Thursday to offer any detailed response because he said he hadn't read the report. He called the recommendations "provocative."

The report's release provoked a flurry of criticism from environmental advocates. As Arnold's news conference ended, an environmental coalition distributed suggestions for overhauling the state's water system.

Those recommendations primarily called for limiting growth in areas where the water supply is inadequate, rather than piping it from a water-rich rural area like the Suwannee River. The coalition comprises Audubon of Florida, the Clean Water Network, the Florida Wildlife Federation and eight other groups.

"A state water plan based on promotion of uncontrolled growth in Florida is not a plan at all," the coalition said. "It is a manifesto for destruction."

Committees in both houses of the Legislature are gearing up to consider the water supply issue in the session that begins in March.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee will hold five public hearings over the next two months in Lakeland, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Panama City and Lake City, Senate President Jim King announced Thursday.

King, R-Jacksonville, said he had "some initial personal concerns" about taking water from one part of the state to feed growth elsewhere, but he wants a full discussion.

Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee staff plans to conduct its own study of the state's water laws in preparation for the 2004 session.

In notes Arnold made to one of the council's earlier reports, he suggested cutting out the Legislature and putting water decisions entirely in the hands of professionals.

"Do we not want to get the legislative folks out of water?" he wrote in June.

Arnold blamed the state's professional water managers for creating a need for changing water supply policies. Although all five of the state's water management districts say they have plans in place to provide water for any increase in population over the next 20 years, their plans "lack certainty" in funding and scheduling, Arnold said.

The Council of 100 report does not include a price tag for its water board recommendations or offer details of how its proposed statewide water distribution network would work.

"Developing a system that enables water distribution from water-rich areas to water-poor areas seems to make good environmental and economic sense," the council's report says. "A statewide water distribution system would establish an economic value to water and water would become a general revenue source for the state of Florida and sending areas."

Officials of the water management districts have expressed strong skepticism toward the Council of 100 recommendations, because they do not believe a new government body is needed to oversee their work developing water supplies.

Arnold said he was not surprised by the opposition the report has already engendered, explaining, "There's opposition to everything."

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