It doesn’t appear that Mayor Bob Buckhorn of Tampa realizes he’s being led toward a deep dark place where no intention of dubious purpose can survive … without the permission of J. D. Alexander, the budget Czar of the Florida Senate.
More particularly, one does not push a bill that will not serve the best interests of Imperial Polk County, the back yard and playground of Alexander, without the risk of political retribution.
|Rep. Dana Young|
If Representative Dana Young’s HB 639 makes it out of the House, there is every indication it will run straight into the that dark morass of personal interests known as the Florida Senate where his imminence reigns supreme and all powerful, and suffer an inglorious death.
HB 639, you’ll recall, is the bill that will allow the City of Tampa to claim ownership and absolute control of Hillsborough River water that the city diverts and pushes through its pipes to gather the considerable volume of liquid refuse and bathroom wastes of the city’s residents and businesses.
Even though the water comes from one of the most pristine watersheds in the state, it is needed by the city to gather up its sewage and transport it to the city’s advanced wastewater treatment facility at Hooker’s Point. This is necessary because the water becomes so fouled after doing its job that it is too dangerous for humans to be exposed to it. The city claims that it costs a lot of money to get all that “stuff” out of the river water and make it clean enough to discharge it back into Tampa Bay so why shouldn’t the city own it?
The city’s concern about ownership was triggered a few years ago by SWFWMD which suggested, apparently without a whole lot of political finesse, that instead of the city dumping 50 million gallons of this highly treated wastewater into the Bay everyday as it had been doing for the past 30 years, it might be just a teeny bit smarter if it were to be used to help the region meet its future water supply needs.
Suddenly, the city realized the huge volume of reclaimed water it was producing was at risk of being commandeered away to other cities or counties if it continued to be uncommitted by the city to some beneficial use.
The city’s reaction was predictable. It paid to clean it up. It should not be forced to send it off to another city or county. It’s the city’s and no one should be able to tell the city what it can do with it. If the city wants to reserve it for its residents to water their yards instead of sending it to Polk County which will be running out of water in a matter of years, this should be its prerogative.
Here’s what actually happened. SWFWMD determined in its statutorily-required Regional Master Water Supply Plan that Polk County would need more water within the next 30 years than it has available. New alternative sources would be necessary to support the county’s anticipated population and related economic growth. So the district proposed that some of the reclaimed water Tampa was pouring to waste into Tampa Bay could be piped to Polk County. The district even said it had a program intended for just such situations and would help pay the cost of getting it there.
Actually the district and the city had been getting along fairly well with the district cooperatively funding a number of projects with the city to develop uses for reclaimed water.
Nevertheless, that’s when, rumor has it, the City convulsed into spasms, called Rep. Young in a panic, shared with her the city’s indignation and, together, launched a scheme to prevent “its” water from being arbitrarily commandeered by some third party. All that was needed was a simple change in Florida water law that could be achieved by rewording the statutory definition of water. This would give the city complete control under specified circumstances and the district would have no opportunity to wreak the havoc it threatened.
Thus, Rep. Dana Young rose to the city’s aid and vowed to prevent this theoretical injustice by introducing HB 639. It doesn’t matter that if passed, the bill will fundamentally change Florida Water Law although the city claims it will do no such thing. Under the city’s proposal, reclaimed water will no longer be considered a public resource, which now includes virtually every other form of H20 found in Florida including the Hillsborough River, as long as it remains contained and separated from “waters in the state.” Therefore, until it is discharged, the city can do anything it wishes with this “product” that it now by definition “owns,” including selling it to others at a price that could include more than the cost of piping and pumping, i.e., a profit.
|Sen. J. D. Alexander|
It is this potential that is worrisome and should cause Czar Alexander sleepless nights. Controlling reclaimed water and reserving it for the highest bidder could create a market and a price for reclaimed water that would be driven by demand. The greater the demand, the higher the price the city could charge.
But of more direct concern to Polk County should be, what happens if Polk’s future water supply equation includes some quantity of reclaimed water that only the City of Tampa can provide? And what if the city won’t sell it to Polk County at cost? What if the city of Tampa decides it can add a premium to the cost so other expenses of the city could be paid by the residents of Polk County instead of Tampa because Polk County might have no other choice?
If HB 639 is passed and becomes law, such scenarios become plausible.
But what’s worse, this bill is not limited to just the City of Tampa. Its wording and impact will be universal. What if other entities like power companies, mining operations and corporate agricultural operations that use water more than once could, and most likely would, demand that their “reclaimed” water also be exempt from being a public resource and want to sell it? If the city of Tampa can do it, why shouldn’t they?
This is why for once it may be good that Sir Alexander is in the ball game.
J. D. Alexander, who will not hesitate to drop an unpinned grenade upon any unfortunate soul so misguided as to challenge his interests and those of Polk County – which at times appear indistinguishable – is in the perfect position to stop this scheme in its tracks, and should.
J. D. appears to have already made one huge strategic blunder that undermines the ability of the county to “get its water right.” When he and CEO governor Scott conspired to cut SWFWMD’s budget without concern for the consequences, the district’s taxing authority was so reduced that property taxpayers cannot now be taxed enough to pay for the district’s half of Polk’s $300,000,000 water supply project as planned. Even with the illegal dismantling of the basin boards and usurpation of their ad valorem taxing authority by the district’s governing board, it will not be possible to raise the $150,000,000 needed by the county to build the project which is so crucial to the county’s economic future. So, ironically, Alexander now wants to up the district’s taxing capacity with a new bill, SB 1834.
But, J. D. is also now facing Mayor Buckhorn’s bill which if passed would put the city in absolute control of how much reclaimed water Polk County would get from the city and what price it would have to pay. It would be an even greater blunder for Alexander to allow this bill to succeed.
For example, how important is this water to Polk’s future? Consider that if Polk’s groundwater resources are at their maximum output (which, according to SWFWMD, they are), much of that water is high quality, potable groundwater being used for agricultural irrigation, power plant cooling or phosphate mining. These are uses that could be more sensibly met with the reclaimed water now being dumped into the Bay which would free up the potable water for higher and better uses such as new homes and businesses for Polk County.
How realistic is this scenario? Realistic enough that Mayor Buckhorn referred to this possibility in his Tampa Bay Times editorial of January 16, 2012:
“…the Southwest Florida Water Management District told the city that since it wasn't distributing all of its reclaimed water, it wanted the city to send its reclaimed water to a use outside of the city, even though Tampa citizens had paid to produce it.”
(City of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa Bay Times, January 16, 2012)
So … will the He-Possum of Polk County torpedo the City of Tampa’s totally parochial ambitions in order to keep his county’s future water supply options open and not be held hostage by a city hungering for a non-tax revenue stream paid by non-city residents?