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Water Policy Key For Next Agriculture Commissioner

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Associated Press
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Maintaining Florida’s water supply, while balancing the growing needs of residents, farmers, tourists and businesses, is a priority for the candidates seeking to replace Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The issue involves helping preserve diverse ecosystems, such as the Everglades and natural springs, without scuttling the economy. Candidates for agriculture commissioner are putting forward a variety of ideas, from continuing to educate residents on the need to conserve water to increasing the use of recycled or reclaimed water and limiting rural development.

Republican candidate Matt Caldwell, a state House member from North Fort Myers, carried a 2016 House water bill that laid out policy goals for every region in the state and has been heavily involved in issues dealing with the Florida Forever land- preservation program. He pointed to a need for a partnership between water management districts and local governments “to construct and operate regional water supply facilities, including reservoirs, desalination, and re-use facilities.”

Another GOP candidate, state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, echoes many other Florida Republicans in favoring the state, rather than the federal government, determining water-resource allocations.

Grimsley also wants to expand on a South Florida Water Management District program that partners with private landowners to store water and expand the use of “conservation easements” through the state’s Rural & Family Lands Protection Program. Conservation easements keep land, often near water sources, from being developed while farmers and ranchers continue their operations. Putnam, who faces term limits this year and is running for governor, has made a priority of the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program.

“We have to preserve farm and ranch lands, which serve as critical recharge areas for our vast aquifer,” Grimsley said. “This means capturing water, not letting it go to waste.”

Republican candidate Baxter Troutman, a former state House member from Winter Haven, talked of a need to balance water usage and conservation, from “incorporating water usage when planning for future development” to using “reclaimed water for residential irrigation.”

“I am very interested in ‘best practice’ water management techniques and have implemented many of these in my own operation,” Troutman said. “I believe that widespread adoption of water management practices throughout the ag industry can have an immediate and long-term impact on both the quality and quantity of water available for all Floridians.”

Mike McCalister, a Republican businessman from Plant City, expressed a need to get government agencies involved with water policy linked in the same system.

“We must all work together in this critical and finite resource,” McCalister said.

On the Democratic side, Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter talked of pushing the federal government for more Everglades funding and expanding statewide what he’s learned with a water treatment plant in Homestead.

“This experience will be invaluable when addressing our state’s water needs,” Porter said. “Other candidates can talk about what they would do … my campaign is discussing what I have done.”

Both he and fellow Democratic candidate David Walker, a biological scientist from Fort Lauderdale, talked of a need for more conservation, with the emphasis on educating Floridians.

“Because 50 percent of water consumption is through irrigation, we need to limit the amount of watering to no more than twice a week and avoid irrigation when it rains,” Walker said. “We need to use reclaimed water when possible and plant native plants that are drought tolerant and need less irrigation. In addition, we need to use energy efficient appliances and only run the dishwasher when it is full.”

Asked to balance the demands of the state, Walker, who favors concentrating development in already-existing urban areas that “tend to have less lawn for watering and will have less water consumption,” said he’d want farmers to enroll in “agricultural best management practices,” which “apply cost-effective actions to conserve water and reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and other pollutants entering our water resources.”

Walker also favors expanding a reservoir that state lawmakers approved in 2017 to help redirect water south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades by repurchasing “at least a significant portion of land from the Everglades Agricultural Area.”

Porter indicated he would put residents first when it comes to drinking water, followed by farmers before businesses and tourists.

“Our elderly and children drink, bathe, and cook with the water our elected officials provide to them,” Porter said. “We can’t have another Flint, Mich., catastrophe where they changed water sources for financial reasons.”

McCalister, a retired Army National Guard and Reserves colonel, noted the Department of Environmental Protection under the governor is the “lead agency” on water, air and land issues. Yet he also talked of a need for “improved and more effective cooperation and ‘interoperability’ between all government agencies dealing with Florida’s water policy, issues and concerns.”

“Managing and protecting Florida’s water resources will require great cooperation, commitment and effort of all stakeholders to include government agencies, agricultural and industry participants and the public,” he said.

Supporting conservation education, best practices for farmers and a need to tie development to future impacts, Troutman said “any comprehensive water policy must address environmental concerns.”

“Our quality of life is directly tied to our environment. Florida is blessed with many natural wonders; from our beautiful springs, our forests, our amazing lakes and rivers, our beaches, and the Everglades,” Troutman said. “If we take care of our natural water systems, our urban cores will also benefit.”

Caldwell said the balance lawmakers must address is prioritizing the water needs while respecting constitutionally protected property rights.

“Building regional water supply facilities for urban use will relieve the pressure on the aquifer and surface water supplies, which are more than adequate to meet the need of rural and natural Florida,” Caldwell said.

Besides pushing for more money for the Rural and Family Lands Protection program, Grimsley said the state needs to “aggressively” use money voters directed in 2014 for land and water preservation for water-quality improvement projects.

Grimsley also said she’d appoint a deputy commissioner focused on water policy.

“Our water supply challenges are nonpartisan and demand full time attention,” Grimsley said. “It is imperative FDACS (the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) continues to have a ‘seat at the table’ locally, regionally and statewide to ensure our water policy decisions are based on science and account for new crops, industries, and future demand on our water resources.”