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Gov. Rick Scott Signs Monumental Water Bill That Rewards Central Florida’s Planning Approach

Published: January 21st, 2016

By: Michael D. Minton

Gov. Rick Scott signed one of the more important water bills in Florida’s history on January 21, and while it has benefits for the entire state, it is particularly important for Central Florida. The law is an affirmation of everything we’ve been doing to address water conservation and supply in Central Florida.

The earlier version of this bill, SB 552, stalled in the 2015 legislative session, not so much on its merits but because it became tangled up in the wrangling over Medicaid expansion and the budget. This year, the Legislature took up the bill as soon as the session started and sent the bill to the governor three days later. The Senate passed it unanimously and there were only two dissenting votes in the House.

At a time when the two parties find it difficult to agree on anything, it’s remarkable – and a testament to their commitment to addressing our state’s water problems – that they came together for this important legislation. The 134-page bill also takes significant steps to protect springs and the Everglades, limit damaging discharges to our estuaries, and set standards for reducing pollution and ensures access to public conservation lands. Notably, it had the support of the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Florida, as well as business and agriculture groups.

New law validates Central Florida’s collaborative approach to water

The bill codifies the years-long efforts of the Central Florida Water Initiative (CFWI). Many of us already knew that CFWI is a shining example of local community involvement creating an atmosphere of collaboration to address a regional issue, such as water, and the Legislature validated that approach.

The new law requires the region’s three water management districts (WMDs) to work together in a unified approach with uniform rules for permitting water consumption. You may recall that the CFWI issued its Guiding Document and two reports last year. Those documents, which incorporated countless hours of work by everyone involved with the CFWI, summarized our guiding principles for water conservation and allocation solutions. Soon after the Guiding Document was issued, the two reports were published: our Solutions Team Report entitled, “The 2035 Water Resource Protection and Water Supply Strategic Plan” and the “2015 Regional Water Supply Plan.” Late last year these documents were adopted by the three WMDs.

The law incorporates the findings of the CFWI’s Guiding Document. This includes the collaborative process we’ve developed among the WMDs, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. It’s taken a long time, but we are now all rowing in the same direction.

One plan, unified standards

The plan does away with the different hydrologic planning models of the region’s WMDs. We have now developed a single consensus hydrologic water model based on sound science, and from that emerged a single multidistrict water supply plan. The model will continue to be tweaked to improve its accuracy.

The statute requires the Department of Environmental Protection, in consultation with the three water management districts and the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, to adopt uniform rules for application in the CFWI Area that include:

  • A single, uniform definition of “harmful to the water resources;”
  • A single method for calculating residential per capita water use;
  • A single process for permit reviews;
  • A single, consistent process, as appropriate, to set MFLs and water reservations;
  • A goal for residential per capita water use for each consumptive use permit; and
  • An annual conservation goal for each permit consistent with the water supply plan.

Rule making will begin in 2016.

While it should already be obvious to all, the water bill states emphatically – and that means almost the entire Legislature agrees – that Central Florida cannot rely solely on the Floridan Aquifer for the region’s water needs and therefore must develop environmentally sensitive alternative water supplies.

Plans for these alternative regional water supplies will come, in large part, from the WMDs, which are best suited to assess regional needs. To that end, the legislation encourages each WMD to identify at least one pilot project for water. These projects would not allow the WMDs to get into the water distribution business; thus, they encourage collaboration among existing stakeholders.

In an environment where local governments, regional water authorities and privately owned water utilities find it hard to raise financing for large-scale projects, the legislation makes it easier for the WMDs to work with all stakeholders to raise financing. A WMD may provide up to 50 percent of the funding for these pilot projects.

New law takes us 20 years into the future

There is no appropriation attached to the new law. Rather, it establishes guidelines for policy that will inform the Legislature when it considers requests for funding while making it easier for a region to develop its own financing.

This law will be subject to tweaks in future legislative sessions, but it should establish the basic parameters for Florida water policy for the next 20 years. In particular, it positions Central Florida to accommodate growth with cooperation among rural and urban residents, growers, developers and environmentalists. If we stick to the principles of this plan in the years ahead, we will have enough water. These collaborative efforts will give the Central Florida community the opportunity to sustainably maintain its water supply resources while avoiding harm, and in many cases reversing the harm that has already occurred, to the natural systems and prevent water (or the availability thereof) from becoming the limiting factor to the economic growth and prosperity of Central Florida.

About the Author:
Michael D. Minton is a shareholder and chair of Dean Mead’s Agribusiness Industry Team. He represents family businesses with an emphasis on generationally owned agricultural businesses. Mr. Minton assists with their organizational structure, federal income, estate and gift tax planning, and business succession planning. He is a member of the Solutions Committee of the Central Florida Water Initiative. He may be reached at (772) 464-7700 or by email at mminton@deanmead.com.