September 26, 2008

Little Agreement at ‘Water Congress’ on How to Conserve Group Meets in Orlando to Discuss Long-Term Solutions for Florida.


ORLANDO -- Water wars like the fight over St. Johns River withdrawals will only grow unless Florida learns to manage its water better, experts and policymakers meeting Thursday said.

But the same group, which included Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton and whose ideas are supposed to help state lawmakers find some solutions, struggled to agree among themselves how to do that.

"My thought is, scratch it," environmental activist Charles Lee said as a circle of delegates at a statewide "water congress" started extended debate about one of a series of ideas that sparked lengthy disagreements.

The ideas were from a package that meeting organizers labeled "consensus recommendations."

The congress was organized by the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, a board the Legislature set up to analyze the state's long-term problems. It will continue today.

The focus is on meeting the state's water needs for the next 50 years, with most delegates agreeing that conservation and reuse of water are the most immediate answers.

"If we don't conserve water, we don't have water 50 years from now," said Rebecca Griffith, planning division chief for the Army Corps of Engineers office in Jacksonville, as delegates debated ideas in several small groups.

Research circulated to the delegates said Florida's water use increased 600 percent between 1950 and 2005, and speakers warned that utilities, farms and others are likely to be competing for very limited water in coming years.

Peyton suggested twice-weekly watering restrictions similar to those adopted in Jacksonville this year might be set up statewide. That idea picked up supporters, including the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, who said she didn't think any landscaping commonly used in Florida required water more than twice a week.

But the idea troubled others, including a utility manager from the Panhandle who warned them to consider the impact on water providers in areas that don't have water shortages.

"It cuts down on their funds," said Tom Dawson, a manager for the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. He said utilities would also spend more effort cleaning out lines designed for heavier use.

"What's good for one area may not be good for another, and you just need to keep that in mind," Dawson said.

No ideas were formally adopted Thursday, as more than 100 people attending the congress split into smaller groups to plod through proposals.

Some environmentalists will use the meeting to try to change the practice of drawing water from rivers or lakes to mix with so- called reuse water, which is recycled from sewage treatment plants and used in lawn-sprinkler and commercial irrigation systems.

"A good thing has become a bad thing," said Lee, the director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida, who pointed to projects that include proposed withdrawals from the St. Johns for use in Seminole County.

"Reclaimed water, at least in the Central Florida area, is becoming a back-door way to get water from lakes and rivers," he said.

A suggestion to require installation of water-conserving toilets or other fixtures when existing homes or commercial buildings are sold sparked another heated disagreement.

"I can tell you as a commissioner, I'm not putting that in my [city codes] ... because if I did, the people would come at me full strength," answered Ed Kelley, a city commissioner from Ormond Beach.

River advocates have argued the withdrawals from the St. Johns could cause environmental damage. That has sparked a legal [email protected] com, (904) 359-4263

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