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TALIS SARASOTA ERALDTRIBUNE / THURSDAYMARCH21 1996
They say special-interest groups
have had unusual access to
.committee staff members.
By Robert P. KIng
STAFF WRITER "*
TALLAHASSEE While legislators debate crucial
changes in the state's water laws, critics charge that
are trying to hi-
jack the process
for their own
The complaints are twofold:
N First, that sugar growers, developers and other in-
terests are huddling in invitation-only meetings with
the House staff to seek the legal right to pump water
even when it depletes lakes, rivers and aquifers.
And second, that Southwest Florida water manag-
ers are seeking the Legislature's backing for the cre-
ation of a private market in
water permits what some ,
liken to the environmentally "What I want
damaging ways of the Wild t supp0 s a
The second effort appears water
to be unsuccessful so far, at
least judging by the senti- such that 100
ments of the lawmakers on A
the House Water Policy yearsfroml noe"
Committee. The first is so the resource
up-in-the-air that not even
the committee's chairman will be
knows where it will land. -
But some people involved SUStained.A W
in the process say they ex-
pect dramatic, perhaps "ep- JOIWMRAYS
ochal," changes by the time committee chairman
new versions of the pro-
posed legislation emerge next week. They could be
changes for the worse.
Not so, said committee Chairman John Rayson, D-
"I don't know what's being suggested, but the com-
mittee is in control of the process not a group of spe-
cial interests or their lawyers," Rayson said.
As drafted so far, the committee's bill would strength-
en oversight of the state's five water management dis-
tricts and promote better planning for water. A crucial
provision would require that cities' and counties' com-
prehensive growth plans take into account available wa-
"What I want to support is a water policy such that
100 years from now the resource will be sustained,"
But critics said that interest groups with other aims
have had unusual access to the committee staff mem-
bers drafting the newest version of the legislation.
They said lobbyists for sugar growers, developers,
homebuilders and other business interests have been
meeting with the staff to hash out key issues, such as
how protection of water supplies should be balanced
with social and economic needs.
Meanwhile, other groups such as representatives
of Florida's cities and counties say they were never
PLEASE SEE WATER ON 12A ,
12A us SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE / THURSDAYNIARCH 21, 1996
Critics charge talks unfair
WATER FROM A
"So much for an open process,"
said Kari Hebrank, a lobbyist for the
Florida Association of Counties. She
said she just happened to walk into a
meeting this week in the bottom
floor of the House Office Building,
where lobbyists for developers and
the Florida Chamber of Commerce
were discussing water with state
regulators and representatives of
Gov. Lawton Chiles.
"I saw all these people there that
I recognized," she said. She said
that when she complained to House
staff members, they told her that
"no one was invited ... Everyone
just showed up and talked about
The meetings also brought com-
plaints from Dione Carroll, a lobby-
ist for the Miccosukee Indian tribe.
"What I'm concerned about," she
told a panel of lawmakers Wednes-
day, "is one special interest group
coming into control. Or two, or
One legislator on the committee
said afterward that he, too, has prob-
lems with what the staff has been
doing. "I would have gone to those
meetings, but I don't want to sit
down with a bunch of interest
groups," said Rep. Mark Ogles, R-
But some who have attended
meetings said that small groups are
sometimes the only way to get any-
"Everybody wants to see their
face in the photograph," said Jake
Varn, a longtime water expert
whose firm lobbies for phosphate
mines, developers and other
groups. "It's very cumbersome try-
ing to do something with 50
Varn said he didn't know who ar-
ranged some of the meetings he's
attended. But he knew of no one
who had been barred from
Recent meetings have included
Varn as well as lobbyists for sugar
companies, electric utilities and the
Florida Chamber, according to an-
other participant, David Guest of the
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
Others groups represented included
the Florida Wildlife Federation and
two water management districts, he
Hebrank said cities and counties
should have been represented, too.
After all, they make a lot of the
growth decisions that affect the wa-
Guest said he's less worried
about the meetings than by what
some participants want to do to the
One change being discussed
would require the water manage-
ment districts to balance social, eco-
nomic and environmental needs
when setting limits for how much
water can be taken from lakes, riv-
ers and aquifers. Others, including
Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, have ar-
gued that only scientific data about
the environment's needs should
play a role.
Guest said the proponents of
"balance" really want to legalize
"aquifer mining" the irreversible
depletion of water supplies, some-
thing already legal in some Western
Some of the industry groups,
Guest said, "start with the idea that
they need the water. They're willing
to write hot checks (with the re-
source) because they won't be the
ones to pay the bills."
Another proponent of the balanc-
ing act is an agency charged with
protecting the water supply: the
Southwest Florida Water Manage-
ment District, or Swiftmud.
Swiftmud Deputy Executive Di-
rector Dave Moore said the district
doesn't advocate mining water, but
he said it's unrealistic to think that
decision-makers should never con-
sider social or economic needs. He
said they always do.
"There's this notion out there
that if you had a hundred scientists
look, all them would come up with
the one correct answer," Moore
said. "That's not the way it works."
Rayson said he doesn't know how
the balancing question will be
But another of Swiftmud's posi-
tions appears to be highly unpopular
in the Capitol: the district's at-
tempts to allow a de-facto private
market in water permits as part of
an effort to reduce well pumping.
The strategy is a major part of the
district's plan to reduce the number
of well permits in all or part of eight
counties, where excessive pumping
has been allowing saltwater con-
tamination of some wells. The coun-
ties include Sarasota, Manatee, De-
Soto, Hardee andparts of Charlotte,
Polk, Highlands and Hillsborough.
Swiftmud wants to ban permits
for new uses in the region, but allow
people who need water to take over
parts of others' permits. District of-
ficials have long acknowledged that
people would probably make water
deals on the side before bringing
their permit requests to the Swift-
Say Farmer Jones wants to start
growing tomatoes but lacks a per-
mit. He might pay Farmer Smith
$1,000 for part of his.
Swiftmud Executive Director Pe-
ter Hubbell called it the best way the
district could think of to stop issuing
permits while allowing flexibility for
Instead, the proposed House bill
would ban such transactions, except
as part of a land sale.
Critics, including Rayson, say talk
of a market deviates from the princi-
ple that water is a public resource
owned by the state. They say it
would move Florida toward the sys-
tem in Western states, where water
rights are privately owned.
"To me it's dead wrong and ille-
gal," said Varn.
Hubbell said he's trying to per-
suade the lawmakers that the strat-
egy is acceptable in limited circum-
stances where water is especially
scarce. But Varn said Swiftmud's
plea doesn't seem to be working.
"No one one has been sympathet-
ic to their position," Varn said.
SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE / THURSDAY,MARCH 21, 1996