There's fresh, positive thinking on how to solve Florida's water issues. A plan by industry, regulators and environmentalists calls for addressing water needs by vastly expanding conservation and maximizing resources through local government cooperation. But the proposal by the group of broad interests is also significant for what it doesn't include. And it provides a map for managing Florida through cyclic droughts without killing the very environment that attracts people here. Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature should heed the advice.
The proposal emerged from a water congress hosted this fall by the Century Commission, a 15-member panel appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. The commission's charge is to look decades into the future and propose laws and regulations to manage Florida's growth. The congress drew 120 delegates from government agencies, nonprofits, agriculture and other industries. They agreed on 18 recommendations, nearly all of which drive home the same point: Conservation must play a central role if Florida hopes to protect its quality of life and meet its future water needs.
The group called for requiring more efficient landscaping as a condition of receiving water-use permits. Experts estimate that half of Florida's drinking water ends up on lawns. Doing more to promote native and drought-tolerant landscaping is essential. The cities and counties need to work with developers and with neighborhood associations to expand the use of xeriscaping. The session called for the state to spend more on alternative water supply projects. Delegates also want goals for per-person water use and incentives for landowners to capture and store water. And they want counties to form regional water supply authorities to manage resources more efficiently.
These are sound principles to build on, but the details matter. So-called "alternative supply" projects are inherently risky; public agencies need to vet the numbers, the science and the engineering before approving them or underwriting capital. Officials also need to be careful about enlisting private landowners in water management projects. Creating regional partnerships could work. While Tampa Bay Water, the regional water utility, has had problems, its mission and governance could be a model. Tampa Bay Water helped end the region's water wars. The utility that covers Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough is the right size — a more responsive framework than, say, the 16-county Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Delegates put aside talk of creating a statewide water authority. Such a plan draws concerns that industry would push for a mechanism to move water from areas in Florida that have it to areas that do not. While that effort may be dead for now, it makes it all the more important to ensure that any new regional authority is controlled and accountable to local officeholders.
The congress made a good start, and not too soon. In the Tampa Bay region, water managers recently upgraded the three-year drought status from "severe" to "extreme." Surface water availability has declined to nearly zero; last month, flows in the Alafia River were 88 percent below normal; in the Hillsborough River, 78 percent below normal. Tampa Bay Water has not withdrawn water from the Alafia since mid September, and as we enter the eight-month dry season, the region's reservoir, because of safety concerns over cracking, holds only a third of its 15-billion gallon capacity. With below-normal rainfall expected this winter and spring, officials will be hard pressed to continue their cutbacks in groundwater pumping.
The water congress made clear that Florida needs a better plan for weathering the dry months and for managing growth. The Century Commission will take up the recommendations Dec. 15; its next report to the governor and Legislature is due in January. There is a blueprint here for changing the mind-set on Florida's most precious resource.