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The Bradenton Herald
(c) Copyright 2002, The Bradenton Herald. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, July 30, 2002


Panel urges joint funding WATER SYSTEM UPGRADE
Herald Staff Writer

Facing a potential $1 trillion price tag to add new water systems and upgrade old ones, the days of government paying for projects must give way to an era of shared costs, a group of experts said Monday.

That new approach would bring together agencies, businesses and organizations to plan and pay for new treatment plants, pipelines and other water projects, said panelists at a water management seminar held in Tampa.

"The challenge is to partner more eagerly and more effectively than we ever have before," said Steve Seibert, secretary of Florida's Department of Community Affairs.

"I believe that most decisions that matter to people - not all of them, but most - are made at the community level," he said. "The second part of the principle that I believe is that this is the age of partnerships."

The comments came during a meeting of water district leaders, government officials, business executives and others. Often at odds over water issues in past years, the sides hashed out how to meet a predicted surge in demands and desires.

Local, state and federal governments historically have filled the role of meeting those needs. But those bodies may balk at paying billions of dollars a year for decades - per a report prepared for Congress - to complete the needed work.

Florida faces a double whammy. Even as the Sunshine State's swelling ranks of transplant and native-born residents fuel demand spikes, its drinking water, sewage treatment and other water systems continue to age.

"That infrastructure is now 40-50 years old," said Ronnie Duncan, governing board chairman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "The reality is, that existing infrastructure needs to be replaced."

In the water district alone, which includes all or parts of 16 counties, including Manatee and Sarasota, it will cost about $1.3 billion to meet the expected increase in water demand by 2020.

Taxpayers likely won't embrace boosting their bills to meet the extra needs, so water leaders turn to other options.

District officials already have found a couple. They have teamed with private developers on a desalination plant to provide drinking water from Tampa Bay, and are working with large-scale farmers to reverse a swamp die-off in Manatee.

A 1997 study fingered farming runoff during the dry, spring months as a primary cause in the drowning death of thousands of trees in the 3,500-acre Flatford Swamp near Myakka City.

Unable to pinpoint the culprit, and fearing a protracted legal battle if they tried, district leaders instead offered to partner with Falkner Farms and Pacific Tomato Growers to catch and reuse irrigation water.

The district has funneled roughly $1.85 million into the 20-year effort, to match the $1.6 million pumped in by Falkner and $250,000 by Pacific.

The two-year-old project already has helped restore life to an "important jewel of wetland systems," said Gene Heath, assistant executive director at the district. And officials want more.

"Hopefully," Heath said, "we'll stay together as time goes on."

The same can be said for burgeoning public-private efforts around the state. Florida lawmakers noted as much during the past session, Seibert said, when they called for consensus building as they passed a growth management bill.

That framework, which focuses on school construction and water planning, took shape only after myriad debates among and agreements between regulators, builders, officials, environmentalists and others, Seibert said.

That spirit, he said, has carried over to meetings like the one Monday, hosted jointly by the water district, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the non-profit National Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

And to drive home that point, he pointed no farther than a similar meeting held recently in Marco Island.

"For all you old water warriors out there," he told Monday's attendees, "we had discussions about relationships and trust. We actually used the 'T' word in discussions about water and its importance in the future of Florida."

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