Water is the lifeblood of Florida. Everything depends upon it – drinking water for our citizens and visitors, natural systems and habitats, recreation, agriculture, businesses, industry, growth and development. Sustainable, clean water supply is the cornerstone of the quality of life for Floridians and our economy. Florida's top economic engines, tourism and agriculture, cannot survive and thrive without water. Sound water infrastructure and planning translates into a strong economy, especially for Florida's multi-billion dollar tourism-based economy.
The management of this critical resource has been, and remains, one of our greatest challenges. Water has, and will continue to define Floridians' quality of life, as well as our economy. From the draining of vast wetlands in Southeast Florida, to the channelization of the Kissimmee River, to the uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater in the Tampa Bay region, our vision has been short and the consequences at times catastrophic.
Today, the greater threat is the diminishing quantity and quality of our water resources. Water permits for consumptive use of water are being scrutinized ever more closely by those who also want to secure permits for their uses and who perceive a permit may impair their long-term interests, and by those who have concerns that a granting of a permit may have immediate environmental impacts. Thousands of lakes, rivers, springs and streams have been declared "impaired" by the State's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and as a result it has been determined that the core functions of those waterbodies such as fishing, swimming, recreation and/or water supply have been comprised due to water quality conditions. Through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal government has focused on establishing numeric nutrient water quality criteria for all water bodies in Florida. Compliance with these proposed, stricter standards will have a significant financial impact on businesses that require permits to discharge water, as well as on local governments as they discharge wastewater or stormwater, and as a result, the citizens who pay taxes in those communities.
In 2005, for the first time in the history of our State, we awoke to the reality that our water challenges were not going to fix themselves and, in fact, were growing in scope and complexity. As a result of visionary leadership in the Florida Legislature and concerted efforts of allied groups, the Legislature passed, and the Governor signed, SB 444, which at long last provided a dedicated revenue source for water protection and sustainability. That bill provided $100 million dollars a year on a recurring basis for:
- the State's Total Maximum Daily Load (or TMDL) pollution elimination program;
- the development of new water supply projects;
- the restoration of our wetlands and other water dependent natural areas; and
- the treatment and disposal of wastewater in poor communities.
Despite the significant funding called for in the bill, the total represented less than 1% of the State's total budget- a small price to pay for the State's water security. Unfortunately, when faced with dramatic shortfalls in revenues the past several years, the Legislature chose to disproportionately reduce water funding in the state budget compared to other public funding areas. The cuts were opposed by an unprecedented, broad-based coalition including well-known and well-connected representatives from local government, utilities, business, environment, and agriculture, who worked collectively to educate legislators on the state's pressing water needs and preserve critical funding for water projects. Despite that group's best efforts, however, the funding was eliminated from the FY 2009/2010 budget. To date, this much-needed funding has not been restored. Moreover, the water resource challenges which need to be addressed by such funding have multiplied exponentially.
To be sure, more must be done in order to secure the attention needed from the Legislature on these critical water resource issues. For too long our leaders in this State have adopted a crisis management/emergency response or "band-aid" approach to addressing Florida's water needs. The citizens of Florida deserve to know that the most precious natural resource of this State will be abundant and safe.
To be successful, all stakeholders must be a part of the solution. We must unite in our efforts to ensure that the State makes the necessary investments to implement projects ensuring the efficient use and re-use of water, providing an ample supply clean safe water for people, farms and our environment. Our communities must learn to work together, across political boundaries, to share in the protection and development of Florida's water resources.
The time is now! Please join us in this effort.