'05 water bill was meant to promote alternatives

Published October 15, 2007

A recent Times article, "Law lets thirsty areas look far," and subsequent editorial, "Water grab would be theft, pure and simple," brought to my attention what I see as a misunderstanding of the applicability of "local sources first" laws.

As prime sponsor of Senate Bill 444 during the 2005 legislative session, my objective was to confront the water wars that we were experiencing between water-rich and water-poor areas of the state. The bill addressed the necessity of increasing the "water pie" through the development of "alternative water supply" projects.

In addition to providing the necessary mechanisms and matching funds for local governments to develop alternative water supply projects within their jurisdictions, the legislation encouraged partnerships, planning and coordination to avoid these types of battles over this vital resource. The potential for such occurrences, as outlined in the Times editorial, highlights the need to continue the current funding of $60-million, at a minimum, to meet the needs of agriculture, natural systems and public use.

In order to undertake such an endeavor, I encouraged all interested parties to come to the table. What started as a working group of a dozen or so individuals quickly grew to steady participation of 120 members representing public and private interests. Participants included environmental organizations, agriculture interests, water management districts, cities and counties, public utilities, developers and state and federal agencies. This process took almost a year and was publicly noticed and covered by the media. It was my belief that water policy is so fundamental to the quality of life in our great state, that all interested parties needed to be involved in crafting this legislation.

Again, it is important to remember that the point of the legislation was to avoid the adverse effects of competition for the use of traditional water supplies. To that end, the legislation specifically states that alternative water supply projects would not be conducted in a manner that would adversely impact the areas where the water was withdrawn. The clear intent was to offer incentives for the creation of "alternative water supply" to alleviate the temptation to transport water from distant sources. Universally within the work group, the existing "local sources first" policy was our guiding principle.

After reading the recent media coverage, I am concerned about the assertions that the St. Johns River Water Management District may be interpreting the definition of alternative water supply differently than what was legislatively intended. The definition that we created in the 2005 legislation restricted the use of surface water to only those captured during wet-weather flows. This definition refers to water that has been captured and stored specifically as an alternative source for use within the regional planning area.

As a longtime and consistent advocate of the "local sources first" policy, I, along with Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, have asked the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation to request that the St. Johns River Water Management District appear before the committee, of which I am a member, to discuss this issue of pumping water from the Withlacoochee and Lower Ocklawaha rivers.

I welcome the attention and support that the "local sources first" policy is receiving, and I will continue to support that policy as we investigate and review the actions of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Paula Dockery represents Florida Senate District 15, which includes the eastern half of Hernando County as well as parts of Sumter, Lake, Osceola and Polk counties. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.