The dirty politics of development in Central Florida

ORLANDO, Fla. — For decades developers have continued to overbuild central and southern Florida, showing no concern for a limited water supply. They did so because they knew that their political allies would assist them when the wells ran dry.

Together, developers and their political allies would construct pipelines to deplete the lakes, rivers and springs in the northern part of the state so they might continue to profit with unsustainable growth.

Florida's Council of 100, a government-appointed board created for economic growth, began to pave the way for this piracy with its recommendation that water be defined as a "statewide resource."

Now, the next step has been taken, as many municipalities realize that they will have no more water to allocate for growth by 2013.

In October, 38 water utilities from central Florida met with the St. Johns Water Management District (WMD) to discuss a plan to build a 100-mile pipeline that would suck 100 million gallons of water a day from the Ocklawaha River in Marion County.

This is the very first step in going beyond the concept point," said district consultant Jerry Salsano.

Theoretically, studies first must be conducted to determine how much water could be extracted without damaging the river's ecosystem. The Florida Wildlife Federation points out that the salinity of the St. Johns would increase if freshwater flow from the Ocklawaha, one of its largest tributaries, is decreased. That could be harmful to bass and other aquatic species.

But realistically, decisions already have been made and studies likely will be just window dressing. The Jacksonville Times-Union newspaper reported that Barbara Vergara, director of water supply management for St. Johns WMD, told the St. Johns Riverkeeper that the agency "has performed enough analysis to know that the surface water sources under consideration are viable to support water supply development."

Also, she told Marion County commissioners that "it's not your water," according to the Ocala Star-Banner newspaper.

Understandably, Marion County is concerned about the threat to its water. Officials there estimate that local needs will more than double over the next 50 years. Plus, by 2015, demand will increase so much that the county will want the Ocklawaha for itself to avoid damaging springs through over-extraction from groundwater.

In a letter to the St. Johns WMD, state Sen. Charlie Dean of Inverness wrote: "To say I am opposed to this notion is an understatement. I am deeply concerned that your district would even consider the possibility of water transfer without minimum flows and levels being established. Compliance with this law is long overdue and I am disturbed that your exploration has not been deterred by this fact."

County Commissioner Stan McClain added, "I think it's going to come down to the legislature or the courtroom."

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