Tom Feeney: Don't import California's water-planning woes to Florida

The state of California is known for many things, including red carpets, wine country and high taxes. But recently, the Golden State has also become known for its struggle with a crisis other states like Florida are working to avoid: a severe water shortage that threatens its economy, its environment and the livelihood of millions of families.

In recent months, the water shortage has become so serious that suppliers are rationing water, farmers are planting less and businesses are facing penalties for exceeding usage limits. California Gov. Jerry Brown has mandated a reduction in drinking water by 25 percent. Offending local water suppliers could be penalized by as much as $10,000 per day.

California’s water crisis underscores the need for states to be prepared. Adopting a more ambitious water policy can help states minimize the devastation caused by droughts like the one California is facing today. They can also ensure states are properly managing natural resources along with infrastructure, development and growth.

Here in Florida, some are pointing to land-buying as an environmental solution. Considering 28 percent of the land in Florida is already under government ownership, this approach is wrongheaded and won’t yield the necessary gains we need to adequately supply water to our current population plus the additional millions of new Floridians that will come to our state in the next decades.

We can look to California as an example of how land-buying in excess is a fruitless endeavor. California ranks seventh nationally among states with the most government-owned land, and an estimated 42 percent of California’s land is under government ownership. The state has spent billions on land-buying in recent decades, and yet its current water crisis remains.

The Associated Industries of Florida’s H2O Coalition has been advocating for Amendment 1 dollars to be spent broadly to address a wide variety of needs to benefit all Floridians, such as springs restoration, beach renourishment and other water challenges, not merely buying up more land. The good news is that water supply and solving environmental problems are usually linked. When we provide more water supply, we are also restoring our environment, just like Amendment 1 tells us to do. Floridians voted for restoring the environment just as much as they did for buying land when they supported Amendment 1.

Florida can learn a lot from California as we continue to make historic progress on comprehensively reforming our statewide water policy. Both the Florida House and Senate have adopted comprehensive water policies that empower regional water managers and allow them to solve the unique water challenges in their regions. In both the House and Senate water policy proposals, lawmakers have shown a willingness to adopt comprehensive and sustainable solutions for protecting and preserving Florida’s water supply.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, Senate President Andy Gardiner and Department of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are showing tremendous leadership by addressing our water quality and quantity issues now rather than when water shortages rear their ugly head.

We cannot afford to take California’s water rationing approach to solve water challenges when it is too late. We need a more forward-thinking water policy and should ensure that Amendment 1 funding will help result in large gains in our water supply. To do otherwise is to ignore the possibility of a water crisis on the magnitude of the one our friends in California are facing today.

Tom Feeney is the former speaker of the Florida House, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the president & CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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