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Happy Birthday to One of Florida’s Best Ideas: Florida’s Water Management Districts Turn 50

Florida’s historic water management calls to mind the mismanagement of the early 20th century — ditching, draining, and swampland sales that devastated the Everglades and other natural systems, while giving rise to water shortages, catastrophic fires, and flooding. These dire consequences, however, resulted in one of the Sunshine State’s best ideas: Florida’s water management districts.

In 1972, with advocacy from Audubon and other conservationists, the Florida Legislature passed the Water Resources Act, considered by many scholars of the time as one of the most forward-looking and comprehensive water laws in the nation. It established unequivocally that all water in Florida, on the surface or in the ground, on public or private property, is a public resource. The act created Florida’s five modern-day water management districts, organized by watersheds rather than political boundaries, and tasked them, along with the Department of Environmental Protection, with managing water as a public trust on behalf of all the people of Florida, not just a privileged few. It framed decision-making processes with science, requiring the creation of water management plans and a state water policy, among other things.

Of note, the act required consideration be given to the water needs not just of people, but also fish and wildlife resources.

Finally, one of its most important provisions was the funding mechanism for water management districts with ad valorem taxes on property values. This was particularly elegant because as landscapes are subdivided and urbanized, they have more complex needs for water supply, flood control, and natural resource protection — which are more expensive. As properties are subdivided and upzoned (from agriculture to residential, for example), their taxable value per acre increases — allowing the ad valorem revenue generated to keep pace with the increasing costs of providing them with water management.*

A lot has changed in the 50 years since Florida created water management districts: our population has more than doubled to 24 million, and our annual tourist visitation has increased six-fold to more than 120 million. Science has advanced so that we better understand the impacts of past decisions, as well as the current and looming impacts of climate change on water resources. Science has also informed some of the most strategic land and water conservation and restoration in the nation.

Unfortunately, in recent years, many of our water management districts have suffered dramatic staffing reductions, and the water management district governing boards have been encouraged to roll back ad valorem millage rates annually to hold revenue steady and provide tax relief to property owners while the costs of protecting Floridians and our resources have skyrocketed. As a result, most districts are running on fumes, with no reserves to speak of and staffing at a fraction of historic levels.

Fifty years of the Water Resources Act is an important milestone for reflection and a good reminder to return to our roots. We need strong water management to address the water challenges Florida is facing today, including:

  • Tragic flooding of communities like those in Central Florida after Hurricane Ian;
  • The red tide bloom that appeared on Florida’s southwest coast from septic tank and stormwater pollution washed by Ian from coastal communities into nearshore waters;
  • North Florida springs that no longer flow due to groundwater withdrawals; and
  • Blue-sky flooding in the streets of Miami Beach during seasonal high tides.

Investments in Everglades Restoration show that we can accomplish great things. To support the innovation that will be needed to meet the challenges of the next 50 years, we will need the bedrock foundation of well-staffed and funded regulatory and restoration functions at Florida’s five water management districts. Fifty years ago, authors of the act knew what needed to be done and how to fund it. It’s time to get back to our roots.

*This is true for all of Florida’s water management districts except the Northwest Florida Water Management District which, in a legislative compromise, had its millage capped. At the time, this was manageable due to the region’s relatively undeveloped nature at the time of passage. Today however, this cap has served to hamstring the NWFWMD as this region’s development has skyrocketed. Florida should eliminate this cap so the district can help Northwest Florida grow responsibly rather than repeating the mistakes of the peninsula a century ago.

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