“Reclaimed” water dispute spills into Florida Senate

Sen. Mike Bennett

By Bruce Ritchie

Disputes between Florida’s largest water-management districts and utilities spilled over into the Senate Tuesday as the chairman of the Committee on Community Affairs vowed more scrutiny of the districts.

Some city water utilities are at odds with the three largest water-management districts — South Florida, Southwest Florida and St. Johns River — over proposed rules to restrict the utilities’ use of treated wastewater, said Rebecca O’Hara, legislative director of the Florida League of Cities.

Some utility customers have been allowed in the past to water their lawns with treated wastewater, also called “reclaimed” water, despite regional restrictions on which days watering can occur.

O’Hara said restrictions are being imposed by water management districts despite substantial investments by utilities and their customers to turn sewage into a useful product. She said the dispute is a top issue for cities.

“Reclaimed water is generated 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “You can’t simply just turn off the tap and have watering restrictions on Mondays Wednesday and Fridays. People still take baths on Tuesdays and Thursdays and reclaimed water is generated.”

Her remarks prompted Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and committee chairman, and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, to launch attacks on the water management districts.

Wise referred to governance of the water districts as “taxation without representation.” The districts collect levy property taxes but do not have elected representatives as do cities and counties.

Bennett added, “I’ve got some serious problems on the governance of water management districts. I think some are totally out of control. Their taxing authority is beyond comprehension to me.”

He added, “I think we should take a real hard look over the next couple of years at how we bring them under control.”

The St. Johns River Water Management District on Tuesday was considering a rule to require that the use of reclaimed water — also called water “reuse” — be limited to the same days in which watering is allowed.

“Reuse needs to be looked at as part of the whole resource,” said Mike Slayton, the district’s deputy executive director. “We want to spread that resource as far as possible.”

But later he said the district’s board agreed to take out the restriction after hearing objections from utilities.

Slayton also pointed out that the role of water-management districts was reviewed last year by the Legislature without changes being made to the governance structure.

The South Florida Water Management District is considering a rule that allows reclaimed water use seven days but prohibits its use between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when it is “wasteful” to water, a district spokesman said.

Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, said after the meeting that cities are trying to wrestle control over water away from water management districts contrary to state law.

“That is a huge amount of water for whoever controls it,” he said. “It is really no fight. It is the cities behaving as pirates.”