Browner, speakers address water issues and challenges at 18th annual PIEC
Forty years ago, drivers could buy a gallon of gasoline with just a few coins, the Cuyahoga River smoldered rather than flowed and the two most significant water laws in our state and nation — the Florida Water Resources Act and the Clean Water Act — took effect.
“No question. The waters are cleaner. We’re closer to the goals of the Clean Water Act,” said Jonathan Cannon, a PIEC panelist and former Environmental Protection Agency general counsel, said. “But we seem to have hit a plateau.”
More than 300 registrants attended panels and events held Thursday through Saturday at UF Law’s 18th annual Public Interest Environmental Conference, “Fishable, Swimmable? 40 Years of Water Law in Florida and the United States.” The conference brought together land use lawyers, journalists, legislators, authors, historians and water warriors from across the nation.
Speaker after speaker, including keynote addresses from Richard Ausness (JD 68) and longtime federal environmental policymaker Carol Browner (JD 79), came together for a weekend with one unified message: We’re not swimming; we’re sinking.
“It’s sort of like a midlife crisis,” said Richard Hamann, another PIEC panelist and assistant director of UF Law’s Center for Governmental Responsibility. “That’s where we’re at now.”
In celebration of the 40th anniversary of former UF Law Dean Frank Maloney drafting the Florida Water Resources Act (FWRA), an act that created a statewide system of five water management districts to govern the Sunshine State’s water, this year’s PIEC fell smack dab in the middle of a political whirlpool over what to do with the state’s water.
In what would be the largest change to the FWRA in 40 years, the Florida Legislature is debating a bill that would redefine state water rights.
Florida law subjects all state waters to permitting based on “beneficial use in the public interest.” The bill before the Legislature would remove reclaimed water, wastewater that is treated for reuse, from consideration as a “water of the state” and give ownership of that water to the utility companies who control its distribution. The water management districts would, if the bill passes, lose control over reclaimed water.
In most states, the issue of who owns cleaned sewage would be a rather unimportant question. But for Florida, the state leading the nation in reclaimed water use with 10 percent of the state’s daily water needs, a state often plagued by droughts and saddled with watering restrictions, the issue of who owns sewage is vital.
“The decision makers have lost sight of what doctors take an oath on, and that’s ‘Do no harm,'” said Daniel Fernandez (JD 76), an assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lugert School of Business.
And in the nation’s fourth-most-populous state with a population that’s nearly tripled since the Clean Water Act and the FWRA became law, the issue of water has only grown in importance over the years.
“We have three times as many people as we did 40 years ago. We have to create all this water,” said Henry Dean, former executive director of both the St. John’s River Water Management District and the South Florida Water Management District. “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.”
Even Browner, one of the conference’s keynote speakers, a former secretary of Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation, EPA administrator during the entire 1990s and White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy director during the first half of the Obama administration, had a sobering view of Florida’s watery narrative.
“Water is Florida’s lifeblood; it’s what our economy is based on,” she said in her keynote address. “Imagine if Texas was treating its oil like we treated our water. We’d be horrified.”
But Browner also provided hope to conference attendees at the annual PIEC banquet.
“The responsibility of environmental protection is one that will always be with us,” she said. “We must rededicate ourselves to solve these challenges. I’m not suggesting that this will be easy, but we have to get started.”