A Florida senator is trying to let a private utility suck water from rural Pasco and Hernando counties even though there is no public need for new groundwater pumping.
The caveat from Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, is included in a rewrite of the state's growth management rules. It is a blatant end run, circumventing objections from two state agencies and a trio of local governments. So much for that lip service about local control.
The bill, SB 1122, scheduled for consideration Monday will let Skyland Utilities, a subsidiary of Evans Properties, start selling water and wastewater from its 4,000 acres of rural land in Pasco and Hernando counties absent any requirement to demonstrate a public need for the utility service.
Skyland withdrew its controversial application before the Public Service Commission in January after a critical staff report recommended denial and said there was no need for a private utility in an agricultural area that had no immediate plans to develop. Pasco and Hernando counties, the city of Brooksville and the state Department of Community Affairs had objected to the Skyland proposal as unnecessary, contradictory to local land use plans and a potential precursor to sprawl.
In pulling its application, Skyland's attorney said the utility would decide "at the appropriate time (to) move forward with the utilization of its properties to maximize its resources consistent with public interest.'' The appropriate time came quickly — just two months later when Evans representatives successfully lobbied Bennett to give them a break. We're still waiting for an acceptable explanation as to how a private-sector water grab is consistent with the public interest.
The language benefiting Evans may have gone undetected if not for Times staff writer Jodie Tillman, who reported it in a story published Friday. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, already drafted an amendment striking the benefit and said he will offer it Monday.
"This is bad stuff when you try to circumvent the permitting process, circumventing the agency's decision,'' Fasano said. Getting permits through the legislative process "is not how you do things. It's wrong.''
The company maintains water is a crop and said it wants to profit from future groundwater pumping for either biofuel development or to market the water to other utilities or governments. It is a disturbing business plan considering regional efforts to limit groundwater withdrawal to reverse environmental damage from past overpumping. The Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority, which serves Hernando, projected the potential for a significant reduction in the groundwater table, a depletion that would be exacerbated by certifying another utility.
The Florida House of Representatives already passed its growth management bill without the utility provision. Even if the utility clause is intended as a negotiating chit to help reconcile differences between the bill's two versions, the Senate should end the subterfuge.
There is no need to let the private sector profiteer from a dwindling natural resource. Let the large landowners follow the rules and prove a public need for water service before building a utility.