Early in this year’s legislative session Sen. Ben Albritton, whose district includes a big chunk of this part of Florida, announced he was working on legislation dealing with “water rights.”
True to his word, more than halfway through session, up comes Senate Bill 2508. The legislation suddenly popped up in the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday with just a few days’ notice.
The change that attracted everyone’s attention was a provision that would force the South Florida Water Management District, whose staff reportedly was caught off guard by the bill, to guarantee to legislators that any management plan to dealing with discharges from Lake Okeechobee:
“Do not diminish the quantity of water available to existing legal users;Do not otherwise adversely impact existing legal users; Do not diminish the existing levels of service for flood protection within or outside the geographic area of the
This sounds like business as usual. The most obvious beneficiary, critics charge, is the sugar industry, whose plantations lie in large tracts surrounding the lake and require large amounts of water to be productive.
The concern is the “flood protection” means continued heavy discharges from the lake’s nutrient-laden water that would once again produce damaging algae blooms in the downstream estuaries that are vital for healthy fisheries. A recurrence of massive algae blooms and fish kill could hurt tourism and coastal economies.
The other concern is that locking in water consumption entitlements could affect Everglades restoration plans, some of which involve sending more of the lake’s water south toward remaining natural areas in the Everglades by attempting to mimic historic natural flows the preceded the system of dikes and canals that now dominate south Florida’s landscape.
Press reports from the hearing didn’t address an even bigger issue that could have statewide implications.
That is the idea, which Albritton’s bill seems to hint at, is that anyone who has secured a water-use permit has something akin to a property right to hold on to that permit forever, regardless in changes in the hydrology of the basin from which the water is extracted.
That goes against how many people understand water law east of the Mississippi, which is that water is a resource that belongs to the public rather than private interests and should be protected and regulated in a sustainable manner.
Nevertheless, the idea that major permit holders have some kind of “water rights” has been simmering in the background for several years.
If Albritton’s bill in fact advances this idea, expect an even more heated debate than occurred during Wednesday’s hearing.