Oct. 20, 2014 | Volume XXII, Issue 10

PIEC brings Florida’s water issues to the surface

Published: March 10th, 2014

Category: News

PIEC5

From left are UF Law graduate and former Florida Gov. Buddy MacKay (JD 61); Robert L. Knight, a scientist and president of the Florida Springs Institute; and Wayne Flowers (JD 75), an attorney from Lewis, Longman & Walker, P.A. The men talked about agricultural water use and how it affects Florida springs during an afternoon panel session Feb. 21 at the 20th annual Public Interest Environmental Conference at UF Law. (Photo by Kelly Logan)

By Jenna Box (4JM)

For 20 years, UF Law has brought current environmental issues to the forefront with its Public Interest Environmental Conference each spring.

And for 20 years, the event has drawn environmental and legal experts from across the nation.

This year was no exception to the prestige of years’ past: “Feeding the Future: Shrinking Resources, Growing Population and a Warming Planet” boasted experts in the field, including former Florida Gov. Buddy MacKay (JD 61), Columbia University Professor and Vertical Farm Project Director Dickson Despommier, and many more.

Since its inception, PIEC’s goal has been to share the legal aspects of environmental protection and the necessity for improvements, to advocate for development of sound environmental legislation and measure its effects, and to help other groups involved in environmental education.

“Feeding the Future,” held Feb. 20-22, focused on projected population growth and the need for food in a world of dwindling natural resources. The program offered three “tracks” for the more than 200 attendees to choose from: agricultural frontiers, natural resources, and legal/regulatory issues.

On Friday, Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, kicked off the central theme with an opening talk on the current challenges and opportunities Florida agriculturists face.

Sarah Bittleman, senior agricultural counselor for the Environmental Protection Agency, discussed how agriculturists, environmentalists and others can collaborate to meet common interests — an ongoing theme of the conference.

“Thirsty Agriculture, Thirsty Springs: Who Gets to Drink from the CUP?” kept with that theme of collaboration from its diverse panel members to its topic. Robert L. Knight, a scientist and president of the Florida Springs Institute; Wayne Flowers (JD 75), an attorney from Lewis, Longman & Walker, P.A.; and MacKay talked about agricultural water use and how it affects Florida springs.

Agriculture is the second largest sector in Florida’s economy and is one of the biggest competing interests for water, Flowers said. The question is, to whom should the limited number of consumptive (water) use permits go, and why?

Making the case for agriculture as a top competing interest, Flowers noted that if agriculturists don’t have access to water, food supply would go down and prices would shoot up.

“What use best serves the public interest?” he said. “Agriculture has a very important place.”

MacKay, who worked on several water projects as Gov. Lawton Chiles’ lieutenant governor, said the competition for water in Florida is not a new problem. He compared the current issue to when he was faced with Hillsborough and Pinellas counties sucking down water while competing for growth in the 1990s. Their overconsumption left nearby Pasco county nearly dry.

“I have seen this movie before. I know the plot, and some of the players are even the same,” MacKay said.

Pasco county represents Florida’s springs, and Hillsborough and Pinellas represent today’s competing interests, including agriculture — one of the biggest, he said. In order to protect the springs, the most endangered ecosystem in Florida, as Knight noted, it’s going to take more than policy framework or regulation.

“When all else fails,” MacKay said, “we’re going to have to work together.”

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