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    Gov. Bush says Florida teeters on brink of water crisis

    Florida's drought is an immediate threat, the governor tells a water summit of elected officials and regulators.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


    TAMPA -- Florida stands on the brink of a water crisis as debilitating as California's power crisis, Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday, and he offered the possibility of both regulatory and financial help to solve some immediate problems.

    At a summit of more than 35 elected officials, water regulators, utility operators and agricultural and industry representatives from around the state, Bush said the drought, which has dried up lakes and rivers, ruined crops and forced stockmen to sell off some of their cattle, is "a crisis, not a potential crisis."

    There is plenty of commitment around the state to build water capacity in the long term, Bush said.

    "But we've got a problem in the short run, and we're going to have to deal with it in a comprehensive way," he said, "or . . . we're going to find ourselves in the same position as California is with power."

    Bush issued a draft of a drought action plan that suggested many steps already undertaken in the Tampa Bay area, including increased conservation and public education. He unveiled two public service announcements that will be tailored for each of the state's five water management districts.

    But Bush also held out the possibility of regulatory relief. For example, Bush said, he could direct the Department of Environmental Protection and the water management districts to use their emergency authorities to accelerate the development of such projects as reverse osmosis plants.

    He said he will meet with state legislators next week before the opening of their session, "which might provide some funding options."

    DEP Secretary David Struhs, who moderated the water summit, said he would help set up a clearinghouse of ideas, problems and suggestions that might be included in or addressed by the drought action plan, and would be calling on local and regional officials to help.

    "We're making this one of our top priorities," Struhs said.

    Also discussed at the drought meeting:

    Tampa Water Department Director Dave Tippin disclosed that the city has issued 4,000 citations for illegal water use in the first two months of this year. Last year, 3,000 were issued all year. The numbers reflect the fact that the city contracted with a private company to act as water police instead of relying on city personnel with other duties.

    In Broward County, it is still legal to wash your car, but not on your driveway. Cars must be parked on lawns or other permeable surfaces.

    There will be an attempt in this legislative session to pass a measure that would circumvent homeowners association covenants against xeriscaping, landscaping that relies on native Florida plants that generally require less water. While xeriscaping would not be mandatory for private homes, it would be mandatory for government buildings.

    "I'm glad to hear this coming," said DeLand Commissioner Marshall Bone. "As a builder I'm tired of hearing that we have to save water but at the same time, we've got to landscape and irrigate everything."

    Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank addressed a subject on which the public around Tampa Bay has been vocal.

    "Our lawyer has advised us that since Tampa Bay Water (the region's water utility) must supply the county with all the water it needs, the county has no authority to deny building permits for new development."

    Joked Bush: "Have you considered getting a new lawyer?"

    But Bush agreed with Sonny Vergara, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, that because of public concern about development, better education is needed to demonstrate that the drought is a short-term issue, and development is a long-term issue.

    "The biggest conflict I have with the public is that they're fined by governments for watering too much while the same governments are issuing permits for more building," Vergara said.

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