TALLAHASSEE — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, hope their water privatization legislation will help replenish Tampa's water supply by allowing the city, and other local governments, to hang on to the water they treat.
Under current law, treated wastewater returns to the control of state-run water management districts to be allocated throughout the state.
"I want to remind you that this is a conservation bill," Young told a House panel Tuesday. "It's designed to encourage the treatment of water to help preserve this precious resource for everybody."
HB 639 advanced on a 12-2 vote of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee, but only hours before the heated debate, former Sen. Bob Graham urged a group of mostly-Democratic lawmakers to oppose it.
Graham argued the bill would have unintended consequences, and he equated it to several "damaging" environmental laws passed last year.
"The history in Florida is that water belongs to the people of Florida, wherever it is and under whatever process it may be undergoing," Graham said. "It is a fundamental resource of all Floridians."
Buckhorn insisted the bill is no "slippery slope."
"If I were to significantly enhance our reclaimed water infrastructure, I would be spending millions on pipes ... on infrastructures," he said in a phone interview. "I need to be able to control the product that we helped chemically manufacture and know that I'm going to have something our customers can use."
Treated water is used in place of potable water for watering lawns and irrigating agriculture. The proposal would help address Tampa's chronic water shortages and the fact that the city drops hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated water into Tampa Bay, Young said.
Several speakers echoed Graham's sentiment, saying the bill would be the first step toward privatizing an increasingly scarce water supply.
They argued that local governments and private utility companies may take a profit-driven approach to dispensing water, allocating to those who can afford it and leaving everyone else dry.
"The day this bill becomes law, those privately owned utilities would have full control of that water," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. "In fact, take a utility that delivers water to the Everglades. They can say, 'Nope, we'll use this for a new development that's coming in.' "
He also warned the policy could have broader implications for other parts of the state. Once the bill becomes law, for example, Disney would own all of its reclaimed water "which is now discharged into the Everglades."