By Christine Stapleton

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Environmentalists battling a bill they feared would lead to the privatization of Florida’s water supply exhaled today after a House committee approved an amendment that will not change the definition of public water.

“It is a victory,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, a staunch opponent of HB 639. “Now we don’t have this kind of, what was almost a radical re-write, an undermining of the state’s core water policy.”

The bill’s original language would have radically changed who controls reclaimed water – the water produced from treating sewage. Although reclaimed water is not clean enough to drink, it is indispensable to sustain the state’s multibillion dollar agriculture industry, along with golf courses, landscaping and industrial needs.

Under current law, reclaimed water is included in the definition of “waters of the state” – a public resource to be used for the public good. That allowed water management districts to oversee and regulate its use. HB 639 would have removed reclaimed water from the definition, thereby giving control of its use to the utilities that either produce or manufacture reclaimed water.

Opponents argued that removing reclaimed water from the list of “waters of the state” would be an apocalyptic step toward privatizing water. Environmental needs, such as restoring wetlands, would be ignored and water would become a private commodity to be bought and sold to those with the deepest pockets.

Utilities said they need certainty that the product they manufacture will not be given away by the water management districts. Without that certainty, there is no incentive to increase their production of reclaimed water.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection endorsed the bill, saying that encouraging utilities to produce more reclaimed water means less water would be pulled from wellfields and aquifers.

After weeks of meetings, the State Affairs Subcommittee approved a compromise amendment that appeases environmentalists by keeping reclaimed water in the definition of “waters of the state” and utilities by not requiring permits to use reclaimed water.

“I think both sides got what they wanted,” said Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, which opposed the bill. “We’re hoping this is it.”