In Florida, whose water is it, anyway?

The next time you go to your kitchen faucet for a drink, think about who owns that water.

Because for every expert who says it belongs to you, others counter you merely have Florida's permission to use it, and you pay only for having water sanitized and pumped into your home.

That disagreement illustrates an intensifying debate over whether the state should regulate water in the future as essentially the private property of metropolitan utilities, agricultural corporations and owners of large properties.

The long-standing approach has been to protect increasingly scarce supplies, including the nearly tapped-out aquifer that serves most of the state, for the benefit of Florida's residents, its environment and as an essential element of life that nobody can claim to own.

"Whose water is it?" said Audubon of Florida legislative adviser Mary Jean Yon.

Already, serious tensions over scarce supplies span the state, including a Panhandle fight over proposed wells, Jacksonville's contested pumping of the Floridan Aquifer, Orange County's quest to tap a reservoir on remote ranchland and high-stakes competition over South Florida's Lake Okeechobee.

Former Gov. Bob Graham recently launched the Florida Conservation Coalition to thwart what he calls the "privatizing" of water supplies.

Graham said he is concerned in part because of actions by Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers this year to shrink and weaken state-watchdog agencies and a proposed law that would give utilities greater control over sources.

Asked who is behind those measures: "I don't know," Graham said. "Those who appear to have privatization as their goal aren't going to announce that that's their goal."

"If I were game-planning private ownership of water … many of the things happening in the Legislature would provide the leading edge," Graham said.

Not all environmentalists are comfortable using the word "privatization" but worry about the state's control of supplies gradually being taken over by utilities and private entities. They say it could result in rising bills for homeowners, harm to the state's environment and some local governments using expanded rights to monopolize development.

For now, most people may know little about the source and price of their water.

What flows from a kitchen tap in Orlando was, just the day before, 1,500 feet deep in porous limestone of the Floridan Aquifer, where it had been for most of a century.

An Orlando Utilities Commission bill for a household using 10,000 gallons in a month charges $5.35 for operations; $5.02 for customer service; $4.84 for machinery and property; $1.63 for electricity and chemicals; 99 cents for meter reading; and 65 cents in fees — or profit — to the city.

A cup of water, then, costs about one one-hundredth of a penny; but not one penny is spent on the water itself, according to even to local utility officials.

"What you pay for is what it cost to withdraw it from the ground, the cost to treat it, what it costs to transmit it," said Lee "Chip" Merriam, legislative- and regulatory-compliance officer at Orlando Utilities Commission.

Teresa Remudo-Fries, deputy director of Orange County Utilities, said, "We all pay for the cost associated with using the water, not for owning it."

Other experts, such as Jake Varn, a former state environmental regulator and now a Tallahassee attorney specializing in water, dispute that water isn't owned.

"That's poppycock," said Varn, who does agree that aquifer and river waters are state-owned but not the waters captured and pumped by a utility.

"Utilities own the water until it gets to a meter where it goes into your house. Once it passes the meter, they have sold it to you. You own it, and you can do what you want with it, subject to certain regulations."

The state's complex water law was passed in 1972, based largely on Eastern U.S. notions that water is to be shared for reasonable, beneficial and environmentally sustainable uses. Under the law, utilities and big consumers must get a permit that conveys a temporary and revocable right.

What evolved in the Western U.S. "was entirely different," said Elizabeth Ross, a South Florida Water Management District lawyer, outlining water law to the agency's board in October.

"An arid climate, cowboys, ranchers, gold miners: Everyone fought for water out in the Wild West," Ross said. "The user first in time was able to lock up that water right as a property right."

Guided by the 1972 law, Florida water-management districts steadily issued thousands of permits to utilities and to other big users such as a Budweiser brewery in Jacksonville, Deseret Ranches east of Orlando and Niagara Bottling in Groveland.

Water consultant Barbara Vergara, who previously worked at water-management districts for 35 years, said the districts have presided over an orderly doling out of water from the Floridan Aquifer until taking more would drain interconnected springs and wetlands and invite contamination by surrounding seawater.

With little successful effort toward securing new sources, including river or ocean water, utilities are now poised to compete fiercely for any aquifer water that may remain and to horde it for as long as possible.

"Utilities feel fed up with being, I'm going to say 'hassled,' by the regulatory agencies," she said.

Richard Hamann, law professor in the University of Florida's Center for Governmental Responsibility and board member at the St. Johns district, said utilities, agriculture and landowners are pushing to make their permits last much longer and have fewer restrictions.

Added Christine Klein, a professor of water law at the University of Florida: "There's a certain irony that Florida simultaneously denounces the Western system of water rights, while at the same time considering modifications that would cause Florida's system to more resemble the Western approach of perpetual permits."

Now closely watched is House Bill 639, which would eliminate much state oversight of an increasingly valuable type of water reclaimed through aggressive treatment of sewage.

"What that means is that the water-management districts can't tell a utility what it can do with its reclaimed water: waters that utilities have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to process," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, during a hearing this month in Tallahassee.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, who opposes the bill, responded that it would give utilities ownership of a vast supply.

"We're saying the water is yours," Van Zant said.

Defending the bill, Greg Munson, deputy secretary for water policy at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said it would reduce state oversight to encourage utilities to invest in recycling greater amounts of treated sewage.

"If you don't give them some incentives, you don't give them a little flexibility in how they use it, they simply won't develop" more, Munson said.

But Audubon's Yon said expecting utilities to manage water more efficiently than the state is a "troubling" sign.

"There are a lot of signals coming out of the Legislature that, when combined, make one worry about whose water is it," Yon said.

kspear@tribune.com or 407-420-5062

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