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Florida bill would give utilities greater control over reclaimed water

GOP state lawmakers will soon introduce a bill to eliminate regulations on the reclaimed water often used by Florida utilities — treating it as an alternative water supply owned by utilities, and not by the state.

The chair of the House Select Committee on Water Policy, state Rep. Trudi Williams, tells The Florida Independent she supports the bill, while conservationists fear that regulatory agencies, tasked with planning and managing water supplies, will be edged out of the process.

During a recent meeting of the Florida Water Alliance, Williams spoke about presenting a reclaimed water bill in the 2012 session that would redefine reclaimed water as a commodity and not a resource.

According to Williams, R-Fort Myers, the bill would treat reclaimed water as an “alternative water supply,” and make it eligible for Alternative Water Supply funding. These projects offer an alternative to traditional groundwater and surface water; eligibility for Alternative Water Supply funding is determined by the state’s various water management districts.

The passage of the new bill might mean that state water management districts couldn’t require permits to use reclaimed water, nor could they restrict how the water is used.

“[The bill] deals with reclaimed water as a commodity and not a resource,” Williams tells the Independent. “In other words, there’s been a lot of talk about who gets to control the reclaimed water — and it should be the utilites. They build the infrastructure and they pay to reclaim it. [The state Department of Environmental Protection] says they can dictate what they do with the water, and that shouldn’t be the case unless the state wants to build the infrastructure. So [the bill] says that reclaimed water is not waters of the state. However, once it’s used to irrigate medians or fields, then it goes back to being waters of the state because it goes back to being groundwater.”

According to Williams, the bill will be sponsored by Rep. Dana Young, R- Tampa. According to a spokesperson for Young, the bill is still being drafted, and her office gave no details on its proposed language.

Mary Jean Yon, a lobbyist with Audubon of Florida, says her group is concerned the bill could lead to a larger power grab by utilities.

Yon says the intent of reclaimed water use is a good one: The process involves taking domestic wastewater and treating it to remove solids and other impurities for reuse. But according to Yon, removing all regulatory authority from the process could be dangerous.

“The fear that goes with changes to the statute concerning reclaimed water is specifically the idea that reclaimed water no longer could be considered ‘waters of the state,’” she says. “That means there is no [Department of Environmental Protection] or [Water Management District] involvement in terms of permitting, allocations, etc. Then what happens if that water is mixed in any way with a river, stream, spring or other surface water? Does the argument begin as to what is and isn’t ‘waters of the state’? It’s a very slippery slope! And in this political climate, it’s easy to see where the folks downtown might start thinking ‘the utilities know best’ and DEP and the WMDs are pushed out.”

As for whether or not Audubon plans to fight the bill, Yon says it’s a no-brainer. “It’s too much of a point in the direction of water becoming a commodity rather than a resource,” says Yon. “We will be actively involved. We just have to be.”

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