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A Times Editorial

Bill is a giveaway of a precious resource

Reclaimed water, which comes from highly treated sewage, is increasingly vital for watering lawns, replenishing water bodies, and meeting industrial needs — tasks that otherwise would consume drinking water. No state has made more use of reclaimed water than Florida. But a bill by Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, would remove reclaimed as a public resource just as it is playing a key role in supplying the state with the water it needs. Young's bill lays the groundwork to privatize a resource that taxpayers spent heavily to develop, and it could trigger a new round of water wars between local governments.

Florida law considers treated wastewater a public resource. Cities sell reclaimed water to residents to irrigate lawns or to commercial enterprises for industrial uses. Reclaimed is also used to recharge the aquifer and to keep saltwater from creeping into fresh, inland waters. The public benefits are direct: Users get a cheaper water source and entire regions of the state draw less from ground and surface waters, helping to preserve Florida's natural habitat.

But HB 639 expressly exempts reclaimed water as a state asset. It transfers control of reclaimed to the utilities that produce it, effectively ending any oversight role by the regional water management districts. The water would no longer have to be used for a public purpose, and cities and utilities could sell it to whomever they chose. This is a radical policy change that is completely at odds with why reclaimed was developed as an alternative resource in the first place.

Young said her intent is to stoke the reclaimed market. But this change would merely steer the water to the highest bidder. Public utilities, anyway, are not in the way. Florida already leads the nation in its use of reclaimed. Some 660 million gallons are used every day to conserve the state's drinking water supply and to replenish surface and ground water. The state's problem is not producing reclaimed but getting it to paying customers. South Florida releases more than 300 million gallons of reclaimed into the ocean every day. Tampa produces more than 58 million gallons of reclaimed every day. The city dumps virtually all of it into Hillsborough Bay because the city cannot afford to pipe it into more neighborhoods.

Nor is regulation the problem. The water management districts have historically not interfered with the ability of governments and utilities to use the reclaimed water they produce. Indeed, the opposite is true; federal, state and local taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on reclaimed water projects. In the 16-county coverage area that includes the Tampa Bay region, for example, the Southwest Florida Water Management District has committed $343 million for 308 reclaimed water projects. It reimbursed the city of Tampa alone $2.4 million for five reuse projects. And while Young would privatize control over reclaimed water, her bill would still allow these projects to be eligible for public funding.

Young's bill undermines a decades-long effort to manage Florida's water supply in a more sustainable, comprehensive way. It is a wholesale giveaway of a precious public asset that could easily provide more than one-fourth of the state's water needs. It is unfortunate that Tampa is supporting the legislation for its own self-interest; Young would better serve her district and the state by creating incentives to expand the reclaimed distribution system. That would be far better than privatizing water.

Bill is a giveaway of a precious resource 01/15/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 15, 2012 3:30am]
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