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Graham criticizes proposed environmental bills

Gov. Bob Graham appealed to a group of mostly-Democratic lawmakers Tuesday to use this legislative session to roll back laws and policy initiatives passed last year that he says threaten the Everglades and Bobgraham_small the future of the state's precious River of Grass.

"There was considerable damage done last year to the state and one of its most precious assets, which is water," Graham said. "My hope is this legislative session will avoid any further damage and will begin the process of rolling back some of the improvident changes made last year."

He also asked lawmakers to "do no harm" and reject the water privatization effort and the bill that redefines the line between private and public lands.

The"water privatization bill," HB639/S1086, is said to be Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's top legislative priority. It would allow local governments and utility companies to maintain control of treated waste water used mostly for watering lawns and agricultural irrigation.

"The history in Florida is that water belongs to the people of Florida,wherever it is and under whatever process it may be undergoing" Graham said. "(Water) is a fundamental resource of all Floridians."

Florida's "reclaimed water" traditionally returns to control of the state's water management districts after treatment.

"That policy has served us well for over 100 years, and the Legislature should be resistant to any proposals, no matter how benign they may appear that would change that," he said.

Bill sponsors Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, say the bill would increase the efficient use of water in Florida because cities and utility companies would be guaranteed a return on the water they pay to treat.

The caucus was formed a year after the Legislature cut funding and staff at the state's seven water management districts and diverted some of its decision-making power from district officials to the Legislature.

After the Caucus meeting, Graham said he hoped this Legislature "will right their record" on water policy and the environment.

Eric Draper of Audubon said he expects the House committee to pass the bill, which would "redefine water as not water." But environmentalists would try to kill the bill this year.

"Once the water's in their pipe, they own it--it basically takes it out of the waters of the state--and that represents 1.15 billion gallons of the state's water supply and a significant part of what we need in order to recharge aquifers and solve our water problems," he said.

He said his concern is that local utilities, which are selling this water for as much as $3.50 per 1,000 gallons now, see the water as a commodity.

The bill passed out of one House panel and is scheduled to be heard by the Agricultural & Natural Resources Subcommittee today.

"We expect it to pass out today. Mainly because Dana Young is an influential member and she has been very resistant to any suggestion that her bills do what Senator Graham says it does--which is privatizing water supply. She just says, 'oh no it doesn't.' But it absolutely does."

He emphasized that the bill has broader implications for other parts of the state. Once the bill becomes law, for example, Disney would own all of its reclaimed water "which is now discharged into the Everglades."