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Fierce outcry sidelines water distribution plan

Feeling the heat, the governor and legislators grow cool to the idea of allocating state water according to need.

Published January 22, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - A controversial proposal to change the way water is distributed throughout the state is dead for this year, the governor and Senate president said.

Gov. Jeb Bush had once praised the proposal to consider moving water from some northern parts of the state to more needy areas to the south as "provocative" and had scolded its many critics. But Bush predicted no changes in the state's water laws this year or next.

"I don't think there will be a lot done on water," Bush told the St. Petersburg Times. "There needs to be a few years of conversation. ... I don't see the water issues being a big topic for this year."

State lawmakers say the proposal from the Florida Council of 100 has proven so controversial no one wants to touch it.

"There will be some water bills, but nowhere near what the Council of 100 wants," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said Wednesday. "We're not going to get into that."

The council, a group of business leaders who advise the governor, includes developers, agriculture executives, sugar growers and newspaper publishers. Chairman Al Hoffman, CEO of Florida's largest builder of master-planned communities, chose Clearwater real estate broker Lee Arnold to spearhead a water task force. Arnold did not return calls for comment.

Hoffman said Wednesday he was not surprised Bush and state lawmakers had given the proposal the cold shoulder. He blamed the St. Petersburg Times for publishing stories about the water proposal in August, before the council unveiled its 34-page report. He said the stories inaccurately depicted the council as "fat cats" wanting "to move water around the state."

"People's minds were set," said Hoffman, finance chairman for the Republican National Committee and chief fundraiser for Jeb Bush's 1998 and 2002 campaigns. "It would have fared better if the public had gotten to know what the council was doing from reading our report rather than reading inaccurate articles."

The council called for Bush to appoint a seven-member statewide water commission that would "identify water stress areas and designate water supply service areas" and then reroute supplies to meet demand.

"Developing a system that enables water distribution from water-rich areas to water-poor areas seems to make good environmental and economic sense," the report stated. "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."

The report, which a staff member said had attracted more public comment than any other in the council's 40-year history, did not include a price tag or offer details of how a statewide water network would work. The complexity doomed it from the start, said state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

"When you start peeling back the layers of things that may look good on the surface, all of a sudden it starts to stink to high heaven," said Lee, in line to replace King as the next Senate president. "It would be one of the most complex issues we've ever considered."

News of the Council of 100 proposal sparked public outrage in water-rich but development-poor North Florida, but other parts of the state had no appetite for it either. When state senators held a series of public hearings across the state last fall they found few if any supporters for the council's ideas.

The last hearing, at rural Chiefland High School, drew an estimated 1,000 people, some wearing T-shirts declaring, "Our Water is Not for Sale," and toting signs that proclaimed, "Not one damn drop!"

"There are people in Williston right now getting shotguns and buckshot," Levy County Commissioner Danny Stevens said at the hearing.

Officials with the state's water management districts said the proposed changes were unnecessary because they already have plans to supply sufficient water for future growth over the next 20 years.

Bush cited this lack of consensus on whether there is even a problem as his reason for not pushing for action this year.

"If our problems are huge, we'll have to do something about it," Bush said. "If our problems aren't, then it deals a different policy result. In all honesty, I think there is some confusion about that. I don't think there's any consensus on where we stand in that regard."

Bush's comments marked a turnabout from November, when he spoke to the Council of 100 in Miami and praised the group for having "the courage to take a position that provokes debate." Bush called the current system of developing new water sources the "tired, old way" and said that without changes it would "cost a fortune to continue to be able to grow."

He also blasted the council's critics, particularly newspaper editorial boards: "Why is it that when a provocative idea is presented out in the public square, it's immediately shot down by people who advocate free speech as a livelihood: the editorials in our state? What we should have is a free-flowing debate about the future of our state."

Yet not even all the Council of 100 members supported its plan. Former council president Whit Palmer Jr., an Ocala real estate developer, wrote a column in the Ocala Star-Banner last week saying he could see no point to creating another layer of bureaucracy.

Instead of backing the council, legislators from both parties filed bills aimed at blocking water transfers. They also called for strengthening a longstanding state policy called local sources first, which grew out of the Tampa Bay water wars of the 1990s, requiring local governments to exhaust local water supplies before obtaining water elsewhere.

Even a bill that calls for a study of the state's water resources might fall victim to the Council of 100 controversy, said state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, because lawmakers "are just adamantly opposed to anything that would move in the direction of dismantling Local Sources First."

- Staff writers Steve Bousquet, Joni James and Amy Wimmer Schwarb contributed to this report, which used information from the Miami Herald.

[Last modified January 22, 2004, 01:46:01]

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