Florida reclaimed water bill encourages more reuse, but may privatize the supply

01/18/12 Janelle Irwin
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Yesterday, a Florida House subcommittee passed a bill that would shift control of reclaimed water away from water management districts and into the hands of utilities. Even though the 12 to 2 vote shows support from representatives, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

Only hours before yesterday’s agriculture and natural resources subcommittee session, former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to kill house bill 639, which he said would privatize reclaimed water. He said the legislation could hurt restoration efforts in the Everglades.

“There was considerable damage done a year ago to the state and its citizens and one of its most precious assets which is our fresh water. My hope is that this legislative session would be considered and would avoid any further damage and would begin the process of rolling back some of the improvident changes last year.”

And executive director of the Audubon of Florida, Eric Draper, echoed that sentiment. The Everglades issue was one of his driving forces against portions of this bill. That’s because if the bill passes, he said areas like Orlando wouldn’t have to share their reclaimed water.

“You could have the lawns in the city of Temple Terrace parched brown and you could have the lawns in the city of Tampa soggy green and there would be no way to say to the city of Tampa, ‘hey, you have to share some of your water with the city of Temple Terrace.’ You could have people going without running water in Lakeland and the city of Tampa could have so much water they would be throwing the extra water into Tampa Bay, but there would be no way to legally ask the city of Tampa to share some of there reclaimed water.”

The Audubon of Florida has asked the bill’s sponsor, Republican Dana Young to change or remove language that would make reclaimed water a private commodity. Those recommendations have, for the most part, gone ignored by Young. She said state statutes need to be changed to represent new developments in water treatment.

“During that time there was never the idea that reclaimed water would be anything but something to be disposed of. It was not intended to be part of the waters of the state. It was not intended to be part of the laundry list that’s listed in the definition. I believe it’s important to clarify the statute today so that as we go forward in making good water policy in the state of Florida, the statute is clear.”

Supporters say the bill is an answer to Florida’s under use of its reclaimed water. Assistant Tampa city attorney Jan McLean is one of them. She rejects the idea that the measure would do anything but help sustain the state’s water supply. McLean denies claims that the bill would lead to privatized reclaimed water. She said water management districts would still control how much potable water a local utility could get based on their access to reclaimed water.

“If I’m a public water supply utility like the city of Tampa, I go into the water management district and say, ‘I need x-amount of million gallons of water to be withdrawn to provide for potable use and other uses for my service area’. So, the district reviews the use of that water all the way through the stream. And it has to determine based on a three part test which is in the statute, whether that’s going to be reasonable beneficial, whether the use will interfere with existing legal uses and whether it’s in the public interest.”

The bill before the Florida House is meant to boost reclaimed water use. The widespread idea is that the water would be used for irrigation and industrial purposes, but there are other options. An article in the Tampa Bay Times said Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, would consider putting highly treated reclaimed water back into the drinking supply. He admitted the so-called “toilet to tap” process has an “ick” factor. Tampa city council member Charlie Miranda also supports the bill. He said even though it sounds gross, it’s not. And it’s done a lot more than people think.

“Have you been to Texas, have you been to Atlanta, have you been to the Washington D.C. area? You have drank that water. Have you been to Israel? Have you been to South Africa? Have you been to Australia? Have you been to New Zealand? Have you been to Singapore? You have drank that water. That water, manufactured, is cleaner and better than the water that I’m producing right today in the city of Tampa because it goes through many more processes.”

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has not taken a position on this bill yet, but they do recognize the importance of using reclaimed water. Their executive director, Holly Greening says even underutilized, reclaimed water cuts back on harmful elements being dumped into Tampa Bay.

“Excess nitrogen to the bay causes algae blooms – can cause algae blooms – and low dissolved oxygen and can result in harm to the bay like lower sea grass numbers or a low dissolved oxygen. So, if by using reclaimed water or using direct discharge as reclaimed water, we can see a reduction of about 90% of the amount of nitrogen in water that is directly discharged to the bay from wastewater treatment plants.”

There’s also a potential financial motivation that comes with reclaimed water. Florida produces a lot of it. And they can charge as much as three dollars per thousand gallons for it. If individual utilities own that supply, Eric Draper of the Audubon of Florida said there would be nothing to stop an important Florida resource from being sold off to the highest bidder.

“So, the day that this law gets signed into law, the water that’s controlled by those utilities becomes a private resource. The day this gets signed into law, the reclaimed water is controlled by those private utilities, it becomes a private resource. Those utilities could literally load that water onto a ship and send it to Saudi Arabia. The state of Florida couldn’t do anything to stop that.”

This reclaimed water bill still has a couple of stops on its way to becoming a law. The rulemaking and regulation subcommittee and the state affairs committee will also vote on it. The bill has not yet been added to those agendas. Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn declined an interview request.

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