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Legislative Preview: Water A Central Issue for Lawmakers This Spring

February 28th, 2014 | WMFE Orlando - It used to be Florida had more water than it knew what to do with. No more. Now Floridians are worried they could run out of water. Fears of a fresh water crisis are spreading to the state Capitol, where water is expected to be a central issue of the spring legislative session.

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[Photo: The Hanjas cut their water use. They believe large consumers like Niagara should do the same. By Amy Green.]

Yuri Hanja and his wife Carol live in a tidy, salmon-colored home in Clermont.

Their house is buttressed by drought-resistant zoysiagrass and landscaping. From their backyard pool they can see Lake Louisa. A few years ago water levels were so low the lake bottom turned into a sandy beach.

In December Lake Utility Services wrote to the Hanjas, telling them to cut back on their water use. 

This annoyed Yuri. At the same time the St. Johns River Water Management District was poised to approve a request from Niagara Bottling. The bottler wanted to nearly double the volume of water it draws from the aquifer to 910,000 gallons daily.

Yuri wrote back to the utility: 

"Now you're asking my neighbors and I to save five- to 10-thousand gallons per year, and St. Johns is now intending to approve Niagara's request to double their draw of water," he wrote. 

"It's not logical."

The Hanjas aren't the only ones worried that Florida could run out of water.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a longtime environmental advocate, says the state needs a water management plan.

"We don't have to be the next Arizona," says Graham. 

"We've got enough water that nature has given us to be able to essentially lead the same quality of life that we and our parents have lived into the lives of our children and grandchildren," he says. 

That message resonates with environmentalists.

In December demonstrators in Orlando presented a "Clean Water Declaration" asserting Floridians have an "inalienable right" to clean water, a right they can no longer depend on.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee appear to be listening to the concerns of environmentalists and residents.

Gov. Rick Scott, running for re-election this year, wants more than $520 million for the Everglades and waterways in the state budget, and at least a half-dozen lawmakers are pushing measures to protect the state’s fresh water.

Rep. Linda Stewart is among them. The Central Florida Democrat says the goal is to combine the bills into a statewide plan combating pollution and creating storage.

"The state of Florida's citizens want to see something happen, and I think that's why you're getting a little more attention by the legislators," says Stewart.

"Because they see no matter where they go and where they live they're being talked to about the water and springs."

Central Florida gets about 50 inches of rain annually. But that's not enough for the region's fast-growing population.

Tom Bartol of the St. Johns River Water Management District says the region is running out of fresh groundwater. 

"It's not an infinite source," says Bartol. 

St. John's Water Management District is part of the Central Florida Water Initiative, which also includes two other water management districts, state agencies and local leaders.

The initiative released a report estimating water use will grow 40 percent by 2035-  more than what the Floridan aquifer can provide.

Bartol helped draft the report.  

"If we continue to just pump and meet all these future needs with the current source, fresh groundwater, we will see unacceptable affects to the water resources of the area," says Bartol. 

He says the alternatives – reclaimed and desalinated water – are much more expensive.

The Central Florida Water Initiative expects to produce a regional water plan this spring. In the meantime environmentalists say they'll keep the pressure on lawmakers to take action to protect the state's fresh water. 


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