Water Summit Shows Disconnect Between Officials and Conservationists

03/11/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today Hillsborough’s City-County Planning Commission held a forum to brainstorm on how to deal with diminishing water resources amid a growing population. The event attracted everyone from county officials to activists, though not everyone was satisfied with what they heard.

County Planner Melissa Zornitta says that, despite recent stats showing a net loss, Hillsborough County’s population is growing.

One of her colleagues said that this translates to adding to the current number by the population of Plant City every year. Zornitta added that the county’s comprehensive plan prevents urban sprawl, and attempts to concentrate communities along transit lines, if they are built, and in redevelopment areas.

Wherever these additional hundreds of thousands will live, such a massive influx, coupled with unpredictable weather patterns, spell uncertainty for the already-taxed water supply in a region many would call lush. Hillsborough’s water comes from surface freshwater bodies, the aquifer that lies underground, desalinated seawater, and reclaimed water. Richard Owen, who is with the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), adds a fifth water source: conservation.

Paula Dye, Strategic Planning Manager for Tampa Bay Water, says that despite public perception, she is optimistic that the water utility can address future concerns when it comes to both meeting growing water demands and preserving Florida’s environment.

Not everyone had such a rosy take. United Citizens’ Action Network (U-CAN) Chair Terri Flott said that she sees a considerable disconnect between public officials and conservation-based policy.

U-CAN Activist Marcella O'Steen of Balm said she wasn’t exactly holding her breath.

When it comes to developers, O'Steen said, policy makers need to learn one word.

Others came away from the forum with a more optimistic take. Dr. Daniel Yeh, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of South Florida, said that bringing together land planners, water managers and other stakeholders was a unique approach.

The challenge, he said, is making elected officials see beyond the next election cycle.

The event’s keynote speaker was Dr. Jim Holway, who directs Western Lands and Communities at Arizona’s Sonoran Institute. He compared Florida’s water situation to that of his state.

Holway said that the states do have some similarities. The biggest one, he said, was a conservative majority among lawmakers.

Although no policy is expected to result directly from the forum, organizers said assembling this many stakeholders was a good start toward a more comprehensive approach to tackling water.

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