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Financial matters come first at Water Congress meeting

ORLANDO — Money trumped conservation as the top issue for the future of the state's water supply for more than 100 experts gathered for what was dubbed the Florida Water Congress.

The two-day meeting, led by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and former Pinellas County Commissioner Steve Seibert, resulted in a list of 18 priorities for the state to address.

The top item, picked in a series of votes Friday: restore funding for building reservoirs, desalination plants and other projects that get water from somewhere besides the underground aquifer. State lawmakers cut the $60-million fund from the budget this year.

Southwest Florida Water Management District chairman and Lakeland Realtor C.A. "Neil" Combee Jr., cajoled his fellow delegates to put restoring that funding first "because without it none of the rest of the list means anything."

Second in voting: creating more regional partnerships similar to Tampa Bay Water, so that the cost of such alternate water supply projects can be shared among several local governments. Tampa Bay Water has built a desalination plant, a reservoir and a surface water treatment plant to cut back on the need to draw so much drinking water from underground.

Asking state officials to put the financing of water conservation on the same footing as building new desalination plants and reservoirs came in third in the voting by the delegates, whose ranks included utility executives, state officials, water regulators, farmers, lawyers, lobbyists and environmental activists.

Much further down on their list of priorities came such suggestions as encouraging development to avoid wetlands, creating incentives for farmers and other landowners to collect and store water on their property and figuring out how to turn stormwater runoff into a source for irrigation or industrial uses.

The Water Congress, formed to help come up with a comprehensive plan for how the state can ensure there's enough water for its growing population, is the first such statewide gathering since Gov. Reubin Askew convened a similar group in 1971 to deal with a crippling drought.

At the conclusion of the gathering, Seibert declared it a success and described the discussions that took place as "civil but passionate. People talked."

But some of the other attendees were less enthusiastic about the outcome.

"We saw a lot of feel-good modest suggestions here, but nothing with any real gravity," said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida.

And Honey Rand, author of Water Wars: A Story of People, Politics and Power, said all the talk before the Water Congress was about the need to get serious about conserving water — for instance, requiring home builders to install only low-flow appliances and plant drought-resistant vegetation.

"That wasn't reflected in the outcome," Rand said. "We could've done more."

Financial matters come first at Water Congress meeting 09/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 11:00pm]
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