Albritton Follows Through With ‘Water Rights’ Pledge; Idea Quickly Draws Criticism, Questions About State Water Policy

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
project component”


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.





Developer Loopholes Get Polk Commission’s Attention

One of the recurring issues in Polk’s development regulations has been loopholes that allow projects the public thought were denied to proceed anyway in some kind of altered form, thanks to loopholes baked into the growth plan or the development code by development lobbyists or development-friendly county planners.

There was a project on the outskirts of Eagle Lake that suddenly became allowed as urban infill, an apartment complex in the Winter Haven suburbs that was okay after it was reduced from three stories to two stories or a restaurant reconstruction that escaped normal rules by being built on the footprint of the old restaurant.

Tuesday, an embarrassed County Commission discussed a school they had denied because of neighborhood objections that was headed to administrative approval under a different staff interpretation of the rules.

Commissioner Bill Braswell said these reversals made he and his colleagues “look like fools” and generated a public perception that there was some shifty behind-the-scenes stuff going on. It’s hard to blame the public for thinking that.

Commssioners asked County Attorney Randy Mink to look into ways to prevent this kind of thing from recurring.

Mink said he’s look into it, but added this is not as simple a task as it seems.

Commissioner George Lindsey, a Lakeland developer, questioned whether this change would be equitable, citing fairness and potential private property rights claims.

During the discussion commissioners also brought up attempts by the Florida Legislature to further restrict how local officials can regulate development based on alleged claims of business losses. That puts local officials, who would have to pay off developers and their lawyers under the proposed legislation, in a potentially tough financial situation.

That raises a public policy question over whether it isbetter to roll over and regulate less to avoid a budgetary hit or to stick up for the property rights of their non-developer constituents who already think the system is rigged against them?

Stay tuned.