Regional disputes highlight water shortage seminar

7 11 2008

By DEIRDRE CONNER, The Times-Union

That was the message underlying an annual environmental seminar, which aimed to bring a national perspective this year to the local water conflict over the St. Johns River.

The Jacksonville University-Florida Coastal School of Law symposium held Thursday brought experts from around the country to talk about water shortages. Among the most-discussed: regional disputes that highlight the differences between water policy in Florida and its neighbor to the north, Georgia.

In the West, regional conflicts over a water shortages abound. Even in the more humid East, water crises are growing. Georgia’s hit home in Florida this year when a dire water shortage in the Atlanta area embroiled Florida, Georgia and Alabama in a tri-state legal battle over water supply and the environment.

“It’s important that the states get along and manage their water resources together,” said Lee DeHihns, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and water law expert in Georgia.

Sustainability didn’t enter into Georgia’s formerly 1800s-era legal standards until 2004, he said. For the first time this year, the state set up a system of water management districts, but he said the effort has languished because of budget cuts.

From a national perspective, Florida’s 30-year-old water management laws – despite some flaws – are quite comprehensive, experts agreed.

Georgia “doesn’t do squat compared to Florida,” said Jacob Varn, a private attorney and former general counsel for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The plans established recently in Georgia need to be implemented, he said, and Florida should follow suit by better enforcing the laws it already has.

Varn called the battle over water withdrawals from the St. Johns in Central Florida a red herring. North Florida should be more concerned with groundwater withdrawals, and the risk of it drying up or being contaminated from South Georgia paper mills and other industry.

He and most speakers at the symposium called for all parts of Florida and Georgia to do more to use water efficiently by conserving water, deciding what kind of use is most beneficial, and reusing wastewater from sewers.

“This is a global issue. We’ve all got to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” said Quinton White, executive director of JU’s Marine Science Research Institute. “Efficiency and conservation have got to become a way of life.”

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