I was the St. Johns River Water Management District’s outside economic consultant on CUPs (Consumptive Use Permits) during the past decade. My efforts made it their only successful period of reducing water use.
Here are the economics: Drawing water from the aquifer is virtually free, so water rates are kept much too low for households to have any disincentive to waste water.
Second, Volusia County cities use water as a “cash cow” to subsidize the rest of their budget, so they benefit from increased water use.
Third, special events (such as Race Weeks and Bike Week), other forms of tourism, and snowbird season occur during the dry late-winter and early-spring season, so a million nonresidents stress the aquifer, exacerbating seawater intrusion of coastal wells and making them useless.
Fourth, Volusia County agriculture consumption constitutes more than 40 percent of all water used, and agriculture is exempt from any water controls; Big Ag pays its mostly migrant workforce by far the lowest wages, even in low-wage Volusia.
Fifth, grandfathered household wells are also exempt from control.
Sixth, once Rick Scott became governor in 2011, the GOP ended all state oversight of development, and Scott packed the Public Service Commission and regional water districts with development- and business-friendly stooges who gutted my successes at requiring municipal water pricing to encourage conservation, and forcing use of reclaimed and surface water rather than the aquifer.
Economic serious fixes are clear to environmental-resource economists like myself, but sadly still not to most environmentalists. Here are some fixes:
First, install higher water pricing during the February-to-April low-rain, high-visitor season.
Second, change from pricing water based on costs (which are low) to basing them on aquifer “replacement costs”; i.e., if the aquifer runs out (as it has in the huge Tampa Bay area and around Titusville), supply must shift to brackish river water, which requires billion-dollar reverse osmosis plants. That translates to a sixfold increase in water prices, driving away businesses and jobs and escalating our cost of living!
Third, a small minority of water users consume an inordinate share, often due to water leaks and mindless landscape irrigation. The solution is water rates steeply inclined that penalize high water usage. Unfortunately, much of our water bills are fixed-base rates (falsely “justified” as guarantees for water-bond financing, as if a guaranteed customer base assures zero default risk for bond markets).
We must slash base rates so water bills vary mostly by use; otherwise, users see little savings from conservation.
Fourth, end the agricultural exemption so that turf, fern and other farming faces real-market production costs. We could always subsidize native-plant nurseries and farm-to-market enterprises separately.
Fifth, sunset private wells, and require golf courses and cities to rely on surface water and reclaimed water (whose supply needs to be prioritized for investment) for irrigation. End HOA lawn requirements, and educate landscaping firms about drought-resistant and native plants while subsidizing nurseries willing to supply them.
Also, protect recharge areas by re-establishing Steve Kintner’s “transfers of development rights,” and elect County Council members and state legislators who will reinstate development oversight, especially disallowing backdoor amending of county comprehensive plans that rezone land to residential and commercial.
— Soskin lives in Oviedo. In addition to his work for the St. Johns River Water Management District, he was the Daytona and University of Central Florida faculty coordinator for the Boardman Foundation, which promoted sustainable Volusia County environmental-resource management by awarding mini-research seed grants and organizing workshops with experts and stakeholder panels. The foundation also worked with environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society to effect responsible and practical environmental policy locally.