1. Opinion

Column: Protecting Florida's water resources, now and for the future

All things in life are affected by a myriad of issues and conditions that often require balance to bring them back to a state of restoration. Consider Florida's water needs. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and other environmental advocates agree our state must do more toward meeting Florida's long-term water needs. That includes protecting Florida's springs.

Florida's natural resources are ranked as some of the best in the world. With more than 1,300 miles of coastline and more than 35 first-magnitude natural springs in Florida, our state's natural resources should be protected in sustainable ways that address long-term issues for today and future generations.

This state has some of the toughest water standards in the nation. These tough standards recently prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to agree with the Florida Chamber and withdraw its overlapping water rules in favor of Florida's scientifically backed numeric nutrient criteria rules. These new state water quality protections include robust pollution standards for our springs that will drive restoration projects for years to come. In every corner of the state, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, led by Herschel Vinyard, is working to help restore the health of rivers, lakes and streams based on science — not science fiction.

The Florida Chamber's commitment to preparing for our state's growth in even smarter and more sustainable ways is long standing. For more than 28 years, the Florida Chamber Foundation has presented the annual Environmental Permitting Summer School — a program attended by more than 800 attorneys, consultants, engineers, state and local government officials, land owners and developers with strong interests in sharing ideas on improving environmental permitting, alternative water projects and statewide water policy in Florida.

Throughout the 2014 legislative session, the Florida Chamber encouraged state leaders to plan smartly for Florida's growing population — 6 million more residents will call Florida home by 2030 and almost 95 million visitors come to our state each year. This means water demand will increase 28 percent between 2013 and 2030. Preparing for growth in even smarter and more sustainable ways will help secure Florida's future. Expanding the use of alternative water supplies and allowing for new water storage efforts on agricultural lands are a few examples of how we get there.

But success comes at a cost. For instance, to clean up impaired springs, substantial taxpayer dollars (billions, in fact) are needed to fund wastewater treatment upgrades, connect homes to centralized treatment, subsidize rural homeowners who cannot afford high-performance septic tanks, pay for storm water treatment upgrades and assist family farms implementing advanced water management practices.

With the proposed Florida Water and Land Legacy constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot, funding for projects like these will be severely hampered. The amendment ties the hands of future Legislatures and doesn't provide the flexibility to fund the immediate water needs of the state. State-local and public-private partnerships will be essential.

That was the starting point for Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and others who championed springs protection legislation this past session. We supported Simmons' desire to provide a funding mechanism for the proposed improvement projects. Our mutual support for maintaining our world-class environmental assets is built around a simple belief that water policy should support the health and prosperity of all Floridians, now and in the future.

What developed, however, was a water protection bill that was stripped of nearly all of its funding — an unfunded mandate — that lacked effective, science-based solutions to help protect Florida's natural resources and promote sustainable economic growth. Simmons' plan was to redirect a portion of the documentary stamp revenue into a springs protection trust fund. However, Florida's revenue estimates were reduced by the amount the proposed constitutional amendment, if passed, will take away — leaving springs protection efforts with only a fraction of needed funding.

Although frustrated that this year's effort did succeed, we hope all of us in Florida's environmental community will take a moment instead to celebrate the more than $88 million in local water projects that will have a positive, direct effect on the communities we live and work in.

As a leading advocate for quality-of-life and quality-of-places, the Florida Chamber will continue encouraging a comprehensive, statewide and long-term plan that includes protection for all natural resource water bodies. We look forward to leading Florida's long-term policy efforts by working with incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and incoming Senate President Andy Gardner, R-Orlando, in passing legislation that will truly benefit all of Florida's natural resources.

Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.