No Water, No Growth

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New Florida residents can get by without enough roads or schools, but they can't live without water.
By Mark R. Howard
May 2008

However healthy Florida's economy is or isn't at the moment, it will cycle back into growth mode in fairly short order. The LeRoy Collins Institute, which in 2005 accurately predicted the revenue shortfall that's currently pinching state and local governments in Florida, says as much in an updated version of its insightful "Tough Choices" report. In the new version, the institute sees "strong signs" that Florida is establishing itself as a chosen destination for an affluent segment of Baby Boomers that's now reaching retirement age. And it predicts that the impact of the retiring Baby Boomers will sustain itself over 15 years, not flattening out until the early 2020s.

After the real estate market adjusts, the report says, "Florida is going to have a big appreciation in property values ... and fresh demand for housing supply in the most desirable and limited locations." And so within 18 months or so - my prediction, not the institute's - we're likely to see headlines shift from concerns about the state budget and the health of the economy back to traditional growth-related issues.

In that light, some behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that's playing out now will be a big factor in whether the state rides the next growth wave or is, once again, swamped by it. New Florida residents can get by without enough roads or schools, but they can't live without water. In 2005, the Legislature linked growth management and water supply more closely with two pieces of legislation, Senate Bills 444 and 360, whose effects will be felt this summer.

Together, the laws dictate that after water management districts determine how much water will be available in a region, communities must plan their growth around that water supply. Previous laws asked communities only to "consider" the water supply. Now, if a community says it expects 10,000 new residents next year, it has to specify exactly where the water for those new residents is going to come from, what facilities are available to treat the water and how it will pay for new treatment or production facilities (desal plants, for example).

Since the laws passed, the water management districts have updated their water supply plans, and communities have been updating their comprehensive plans with new growth projections and passing them to the water districts for review. Some, like Lee and Collier counties, have been proactive and progressive in their planning, while others show less foresight. For most local communities, "the reality of it is starting to hit home," says John Mulliken, director of water supply planning for the South Florida Water Management District. "We've got a lot of comp plans in. There's a wide variety in terms of whether they meet the statutory requirements."

Over the next several months, as more comp plans trickle in, the water management districts will evaluate whether the communities are meeting the requirements of the law - and they'll recommend whether the state should approve those local growth plans. There may be rude awakenings for communities that either are oblivious to the law or have chosen to ignore it. Under the law, a local community can't approve a building permit or issue a certificate of occupancy without a determination that there's an adequate supply of water to serve the new development. A worst-case scenario could see a building moratorium in a community that doesn't get its act together. "The rubber starts to meet the road this summer," says Carol Ann Wehle, SFWMD's executive director.

Aside from whether the Legislature resists diluting the law, a key issue is how communities will create additional water supply. Additional groundwater pumping in many parts of the state, particularly the south and southwest, isn't an option.

Many communities will be looking at creating alternative water sources - via reuse, desalination, treating brackish water and the like. They also need to make conservation a bigger priority. There's an inherent bias in big organizations like water management districts toward expensive, technology-heavy solutions like desal without comparable investments in conservation, which is cheaper and faster. The state, meanwhile, puts a disproportionate amount of money into creating alternative supply vs. spending on conservation.

Many believe conservation should get more emphasis. At least one group, the Utility Council of the Florida Section of the American Water Works Association, supports making water conservation or demand-side management programs eligible for funding as alternative water supplies. David Moore, executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a leader in conservation efforts, told attendees at a water conference at the University of Florida in February that he believes "the biggest bite of the water-supply apple in the next 20 years is going to be conservation."

At the conference, Moore refuted the notion, advanced by another water manager, that you can't "count" gallons created via conservation. Moore's district has excellent statistics to that point, and to how effective conservation measures can be. Water use in Pinellas County, for example, fell from 153 gallons a day in 1990 to 89 gallons in 2006, largely the result of education and conservation measures. Meanwhile, as Trend reported last year, as construction of a giant desal plant on Tampa Bay dragged on for years, the regional water utility managed to reduce groundwater pumping in the region from 192 million to 121 million gallons a day in the face of a growing population - without any of the desalinated water that officials once insisted they needed to meet that goal.

The state has plenty of room to conserve. Farms use half the water consumed in Florida; half the farms use inefficient flood irrigation. State-supported investments in micro-irrigation could help reduce ag's consumption. As for overall use, although Florida has reduced its daily per capita usage from 174 gallons a day in 2000 to 157.5 in 2005, that's still higher than the average daily U.S. per capita consumption of about 100 gallons. Europeans use about 53 a day.

As Trend's associate editor, Cynthia Barnett, makes clear in her book, "Mirage," water supply planning needn't be built on the premise that we have to have more and more water to prosper. Overall water use in the United States stopped rising in the 1980s, yet population as well as gross domestic product have grown steadily ever since. Saving a gallon of water is just as effective - and much, much cheaper - than producing a new one. All the numbers show that growth and conservation co-exist just fine.