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Truce declared in water skirmish

The water of rural North Florida appears to be safe for another year, and local leaders on Thursday breathed a sigh of relief at the news.

"I think they've seen the light," said state Rep. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.

The issue, however, might not be dead, but sleeping. Some opponents fear it could rear its head again after the election this November, when a new crop of state legislators becomes the policymakers.

Gov. Jeb Bush had once praised a proposal from a business advisory group, the Council of 100, to create a statewide water distribution system, which would essentially create ways for rural areas to sell their water supply to booming parts of the state. But on Wednesday, he told the St. Petersburg Times that the state's water policies need "a few years of conversation."

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, never an enthusiastic supporter of the Council of 100's report, agreed, and the ideas raised in the report appear dead, at least for this legislative session.

"I've always said that I thought after the election, this thing will come up again," said state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, who has built her career on local water policy.

"I don't think they realize the resistance that there would be.

"I think they thought they were going to pit South Florida against North Florida, and it didn't work that way," she continued. "I think they thought they were going to pit agriculture against . . . development, and it didn't work that way."

Argenziano serves on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which at King's suggestion held public hearings statewide on the Council of 100's report.

Instead of finding South and Central Florida favoring the idea and North Florida opposing it, the committee discovered opposition statewide from the groups of mostly residents who turned out for the hearings.

In North Florida, residents feared future water shortages. In South Florida, residents argued against rampant, irresponsible development.

At first, Argenziano had hoped the Legislature would simply ignore the Council of 100 report. Later, she admitted that King's suggestion worked.

"I think that was the best thing I've been involved in in a long time," Argenziano said, "and I think it worked tremendously."

Gary Bartell, a Citrus County commissioner who is also co-chairman for the Florida Association of Counties water policy committee and serves on the Florida Chamber of Commerce's Water Task Force, said he hopes "the powers-that-be heard around Florida, loud and clear" that the public opposes water transfers.

"I'm sure it will come back up, but I tell you, from what I've heard and all the meetings I've attended around the state on this issue, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the citizens are not going to support it," Bartell said.

Dean said legislation introduced this year is more likely to focus on water conservation and similar issues. Argenziano said she doesn't think the water transfer issue is going anywhere, although it is apparently due for a one-year reprieve.

"There's an awful lot of money to be made if you privatize water," Argenziano said, "and if there's a lot of money to be made, it will keep coming up."