Paula Dockery: Florida’s water wars



Water issues are back in the news. Florida elected officials are once again vowing to take action and to provide funding for water-related issues.

In one instance, the state of Florida intends to sue our neighboring state, Georgia, over excessive consumption of water upstream from us, in a case to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. Three states — Florida, Georgia and Alabama — have been duking it out in the federal courts for more than three decades.

At issue is who is entitled to the water from a system of three rivers: the Apalachicola, the Chattahoochee and the Flint. Florida wants the water to sustain its seafood industry on Apalachicola Bay, while Alabama and Georgia want to hold the water upstream in reservoirs to support continued growth and recreational opportunities.

While talks have ensued over many years, details are hidden from public view so it’s difficult to know whether the confidential documents show any compromise among the three thirsty states.

In the other recent example, lawmakers have quickly called for hearings to address the damage to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries caused by the heavy release of less than pristine water flowing from Lake Okeechobee. This action by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resulted in fish kills and toxic water in the estuaries.

Why was this increased release necessary? The heavy rains caused the levels in Lake Okeechobee to become dangerously high. We have known for many years that the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike was a serious concern in times of heavy rain, such as during Florida’s hurricane season. Likewise, we have known that the water quality in the huge lake is severely degraded.

But until the visual shock of dolphin, manatee and pelican deaths in the Indian River Lagoon, issues about water quality, lake releases and dike improvements have been on the back burner.

Of course, the science will show many other factors that contribute to these adverse effects — such as nitrogen from septic tanks, lawn fertilizer runoff, and inadequate water storage, water quality improvement projects, treatment of waste water, and enforcement.

In both these cases, the state has shown a willingness to step up and fight for Florida’s economic interests, whether they involve the seafood industry, tourism or recreational fishing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the state’s willingness to act extended to the health of our wetlands, aquifer, rivers, lakes and other natural systems for the sole purpose of ensuring a safe and plentiful supply of clean fresh water?

One simple and indisputable fact needs to be stated: There is no life without water. Take a minute to let that sink in. You will die without water. You cannot grow food without water. In other words, water is kind of important.

Florida law acknowledges that water resources belong to all the people of Florida. In that regard, the state has an awesome responsibility to protect, conserve, restore, reuse and responsibly allocate this vital resource.

But with so many stakeholders and competing interests, lawmakers have lacked the political will to set an ecologically sustainable policy and resist powerful political pressure to leave it in place. Political rhetoric about loosening job-killing regulations enables lawmakers to justify rescinding septic-tank regulations, water-nutrient standards and permitting and concurrency requirements.

Our actions do have consequences and those consequences come with a hefty price tag to remedy. It is less costly to prevent a water body from becoming polluted than to undertake another multibillion-dollar restoration effort like Lake Okeechobee and the larger Everglades ecosystem that provides drinking water for millions of Floridians.

It will take political courage, a long-term commitment and adherence to sound scientific and ecological principles. The funding and the policy need to be permanently in place to ensure a continued commitment that prevents misguided political cowardice to weaken that obligation. In 2005, the state was well on its way to sound policy and sustainable, dedicated funding. However, that funding was drained slowly, like a leaky spigot washing away all the progress that a diverse group of stakeholders put in motion.

It will take a concerted effort to work collaboratively with local, state and federal officials for sound policy, rigorous enforcement and sustained funding. The time is now and every day going forward. Water policy needs to be moved up to the top of the hierarchy of state issues and stay there.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”

Let’s not wait until the well is dry.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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