Swiftmud caught in middle of well debate
By Robert P. King
TALLAHASSEE Twin bogey-
men are haunting the 3V-year effort
to save Southwest Florida's ground
One is a Wild West-style free
market in water permits, a bazaar
that would enrich the haves at the
expense of the environment.
The other is a plodding, lawyer-
clogged water bureaucracy, in
which faceless apparatchiks would
decide who deserves permits and
who should be left out.
Caught in the middle is the South-
west Florida Water Management
District, which has been trying
since late 1992 to cut well pumping
in a region stretching from Polk
County to Charlotte Harbor. Soon
its plans may be doomed, thanks to
proposed legislation crafted by op-
ponents who fear that the district
wants to introduce laissez-faire cap-.
italism to Florida's water rules.
Executives of the district, known
as Swiftmud, say. they harbor no:
such designs. They say they just
want to let well-users swap or sell
their permits to help the region's
economy ease into a new era of
The district wants to ban new
well permits in all or part of eight
counties Sarasota, Manatee,
Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, Hills-
borough, Polk and Highlands. Swilt-
mud has issued far more permits
there than the environment can sup-
port, leading to saltwater contami-
nation of coastal wells,
But even the district says the ban
"They'reproviding a windfall topeople for
something they were never intended to be
JAIE VAI, water exportand cobbylst
would devastate the economy un-
less new or expanding farms, busi-
nesses and utilities can get permits
Swiftmud, which would approve
or block the-transfer of permits,
calls the plan an efficient way to
spread wells more evenly and move
them from especially depleted ar-
eas. It would also give existing users
an incentive to conserve so they
have water to sell.
But critics in the state Capitol see
the proposal as a threat They see
the specter of the "first come, first
served" water laws common in
Western states, where certain peo-
ple own the water, others have to
pay to use it, and the environment
often gets short shrift.
Florida's quarter-century-old wa-
ter law offers a different vision: Wa-
ter isa public resource owned by the
state and regulated by districts such
as Swiftmud. It's free, except for the
cost of a permit and the expense of
"That's a very' fundamental part
of water law," sad Bart Bibler, a for-
mer slate water regulator and a lob-
byist for the Florida Wildlife Federa-
tion. Swiftmud officials, he said,
"are abdicating their
"They're providing a windfall to
people for something they were
never intended to be compensated
for," said Jake Vard a water expert
who lobbies for developers and
phosphate mines."To me the whole
policy is dead wrong and illegal."
In line with tat sentiment, pro-
posed legislation in the House Wa-
ter Policy Committee would prohib-
PLEASE S1WATiRl ON &
SARASOTA IERALD-TRIBUNE / MONDAY,MARCH 25, 1996
Swiftmud caught in middle
of debate over ground water
WATER FeRO1 IA
it transfers of permits except as part
of a land sale.
The idea of a water market has
also drawn opposition from Lt, Gov.
Buddy MacKay, Gov. Lawton
Chiles' point man on environmental
affairs. MacKay said he'd support
using permit transfers to move the
pumping out of the eight-county re-
gion but not within it, as Swift-
Otherwise, Bibler and Varn said,
Swiftmud should do what current
law allows: If water permits need to
move around, the district should de-
cide who gets them and who loses. If
a phosphate mine, three citrus farm-
ers and a growing city all want the
same water, Swiftmud would decide
which best serves the public
But one attorney for farming
groups called that a system only a
lawyer could love.
"Somebody's on acid," said Doug
Manson, a lawyer for the Florida
Citrus Mutual and other groups,
finding himself ip the unaccustomed
position of agreeing with Swiftmud.
"You will see a line of attorneys at
least 12 to 14 deep signing up to ap-
ply for the water permits each time
one becomes available," Manson
said. Only those who could afford
lawyers and consultants would get
the permits, he predicted, and those
who were denied would sue.
Manson called the fears of a free
market in water overblown. He said
people wouldn't be buying water
rights, just a chance to use a permit
for a limited period.
Another agriculture representa-
tive, Jim Daniel of the Manatee
County Farm Bureau, said he
doubts Swiftmud officials want to
make those kinds of choices. "Who
wants to be Solomon?"
So what, Bibler said. "It's a diffi-
cult decision, nobody would dispute,
but that's why they're appointed.
"How do you want the decisions
to be made?" Bibler asked. "By en-
tities that can see the big picture?
Or by individuals based on profit?"
Swiftmud's plans aren't the only
reason some fear a shift toward
Western water law.
Other proposals floating around
the Legislature would make 20
years the typical length of a water
permit, up from six today, and would
make it harder for a district like
Swiftmud to refuse to renew them.
That's tantamount to "first come,
first served," Bibler said.
The fate of the water legislation is
in flux, with more proposals emerg-
ing than even some lobbyists can
keep up with. Swiftmud executives
were in Tallahassee this week try-
ing to salvage their ability to allow
permit transfers, but they couldn't
say what they would do if they fail.
"It's too early to tell exactly what
the impact would be," said district
Deputy Executive Director Dave
Moore. "There would have to be
But Manson called the ability to
transfer permits so essential that
the rest of the plan would fall apart
without it He said it's the only rea-
son his clients dropped out of a legal
challenge being pursued by environ-
mentalists and various counties
seeking to block the plan.
Regardless of what the Legisla-
ture decides, Manson said, the
emergence of a water market is in-
evitable if new permits become off-
"They can try to outlaw this, but I
can tell you there are ways it can be
done," such as sham land sales,
Manson said.."People will find way
to get the water."
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