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Hurricane Irma Dominates Water Policy Discussions

Credit US Department of Agriculture

Hurricane Irma hung over an annual gathering of state and industry officials discussing water policy.

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Associated Industries of Florida holds a water forum every year bringing out lawmakers, regulators and local officials.  In addition to giving industry representatives a chance to rub elbows with policymakers, the meeting typically looks ahead to plans for the coming year.  But Hurricane Irma had many looking back.

“That rainfall district wide—10.24 inches of rain,” Ann Shortelle says, looking to a map.

Shortelle heads up the St. Johns Water Management District.  She says the rain translates to 2.2 trillion gallons—or enough to cover consumption in her district for five years.

“Where is that water?” she asks.  “Well billions and billions of gallons have gone out the mouth of the St. Johns, shunted over to the Indian River Lagoon and the like.  This is that management tension, and this is why the storage component and reuse component are so critically, critically important.”

Florida’s population is growing, and ensuring there is enough potable water to go around becomes more difficult with each new arrival.  It means Shortelle and other officials are looking for ways to conserve, store and reuse water. 

Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Drew Bartlett says it’s part of why the agency wants money for the land buying program Florida Forever.

“We’re also asking for fifty million for Florida Forever.  When you think about the mix of where we live and our natural lands that mix needs to be there and it was honestly highlighted by Irma.  Because where do we put—where does the water go when we get it out of our households?  It goes to our natural systems.”

The program has struggled for funding since the great recession, and the $50 million mark is about a sixth of what lawmakers used to budget for the program.  Despite a guaranteed funding source in Amendment One dollars, lawmakers refused to appropriate money to Florida Forever earlier this year. 

Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) says repairing infrastructure damaged in the storm will only make funding water projects more difficult.  He points to a bridge closure in his district.

“That hurts our economy, the people expect it to be addressed because they are used to driving on it every day and that is now going to be needed to be addressed and that is millions of dollars,” Bradley says.

“And so that is now millions of dollars that you can’t spend on something that you would want to otherwise, and that is going to be happening throughout the state of Florida.”

Earlier this month state economists warned lawmakers money will be tight.  Projections put the total of new money at about $52 million, and that’s before factoring in storm related costs.

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