With Florida’s population poised to climb by 15 million people in coming decades, demand for water – already one of the state’s scarcest resources — is poised to spike 54 percent if development goes unchecked, a new report shows.
The agriculture region east of Lake Okeechobee already is one of the state’s biggest users of water. But as the site of big residential developments already approved in Palm Beach County, the demand will intensify by 2070, analysts said.
A similar threat to the availability of fresh water also exists across Central Florida and in Southwest Florida, where thousands of new homes are planned in areas once considered off-limits to development.
“I agree that the situation does look dire,” said Ryan Smart, president of 1,000 Friends of Florida, which joined with the Florida Department of Agriculture and University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center in preparing the report.
“But I take hope in the fact that there are relatively simple things that we can do as Floridians, to dig us out of the hole,” he added.
Balancing development against nature preserves and farmland will be a recurring theme of the next half-century, 1000 Friends of Florida says in its Florida 2070 report.
But the organization maintains that through smart growth management, there is a way to lower the trajectory Florida is on, which puts on course to having one-third of the state developed, up from less than 19 percent during the report’s 2010 baseline year.
If many residents are already feeling the pressures of crowded roads, neighborhoods and schools, there is certainly more to come, the report shows.
But 1000 Friends argues that by relying on a more compact pattern of development and increasing the state’s protected land holdings, the percentage of Florida under development can be held to 28 percent in 2070.
South Florida, so long home to rapid growth, is projected as slowing in coming years, relative to the rest of the state.
Within South Florida, the most dramatic potential changes in 2070 can be seen in the areas south of Lake Okeechobee, including in Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades counties, as well as in Lee and Collier counties, the report finds.
Still, land devoted to cities and suburbia in the region should cap at 30 percent of the region — below the state’s 34 percent average, analysts said.
The area of most overwhelming growth in the next half-century? Central Florida.
By 2070, almost half the region from Tampa to Daytona Beach will be devoted to roads, homes, and the other trappings of development, 1,000 Friends forecasts.
But Scott sees the spread of mega-developments, from the Panhandle to the heart of panther habitat in Southwest Florida, as helping the state pay for widespread environmental problems facing the state.
The Indian River Lagoon on the state’s Atlantic shore and Caloosahatchee River on the Gulf of Mexico side have been badly fouled by freshwater runoff from Lake Okeechobee, carrying pollutants from neighborhoods, farms and cities.
At the same time, freshwater springs, concentrated mostly in Central and North Florida, have proved particularly vulnerable to pollutants from nearby development. Such landmark sites as Silver Springs, Wakulla Springs and Fanning Springs are choked by nutrients and algae.
Scott, though, said his administration has steered $880 million toward advancing long-stalled Everglades’ projects while backing major efforts for cleaning the Indian River Lagoon and endangered springs.
These initiatives would not be possible without the dollars provided by the building projects that are flourishing in Florida, he said.
“All that’s happened,” Scott said, “because we’ve turned around our economy.”
On what had been timber and farm land in Charlotte County on the Gulf coast, a city whose acreage is bigger than Manhattan is beginning to emerge. In Orange County, 4,000 homes are on their way east of the Econlockhatchee River, long a dividing line between urban and rural Central Florida. Prime Florida panther habitat is targeted for development in eastern Collier County, just southeast of Palm Beach County.
What’s happened in Florida since growth oversight has been reduced?
The wholesale building boom can be traced in state statistics.
Real estate tax collections, a strong barometer of growth, soared 17 percent last year in Florida to $2.1 billion.
That was the highest level in the state since 2006 when these documentary stamp taxes paid on real estate transactions began toppling from a pre-recession high of $4 billion in 2005, a towering mark propelled upward by two straight years of hurricane rebuilding.
The most building permits in a decade also were issued last year in Florida after five years of growth.
The rising tax receipts not only are proof of a rebounding economy, but also helped fuel a state budget that hit $82 billion this year for the first time. That allowed Scott to make good on his re-election promise to give back $1 billion in tax breaks.
Five years after Gov. Rick Scott scaled back Florida’s growth laws, massive development projects are underway across the state, boosting employment and tax collections but also sparking fears of traffic-choked roads and environmental calamities.
But similar, multi-thousand-acre projects are also in the works this spring across remote stretches of scrub and wetland – virtually in every corner of Florida.
Such mega-projects as Babcock Ranch,Plum Creek, Lake Pickett and Deseret Ranch, are poised to add thousands of houses, millions of feet of commercial space and swell the state’s population through the next decade by converting vast amounts of rural land.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Paulette Burdick, who fought much of the western growth in her county, traces Florida’s boom to Scott’s actions in 2011.
“It just kicked the door open,” Burdick said. “But the impact of all this development is ultimately going to be picked up by the taxpayers. They’re the ones who will have to pay for the needed roads, the schools and improving the bad water we’ll be left with.”
After a turbulent 2015, the Florida Legislature looked to end the opening week of this year’s session in harmony Thursday, swiftly approving the top issues sought by the leaders of the House and Senate.
A measure that expands educational opportunities for Floridians with intellectual disabilities were overwhelmingly approved by the House sent to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law.
The legislation is a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, whose son has Down syndrome.
Moments later, the House OK’d sweeping water policy proposals sought by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
The two leaders, whose chambers had battled through four legislative sessions last year – most of them ending badly – stood elbow-to-elbow on the House floor following Thursday’s votes, a clear departure from last year’s dysfunction.
Underscoring the optics, the 1980s hit Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us by Jefferson Starship was playing over the House sound system.
“This is what working together can do,” Crisafulli said. “Obviously, there’s a lot more to do, with a budget to pass and some great things we can do for the state of Florida.”
The leaders last year tried to get similar proposals approved. But they were derailed by the House and Senate’s fight over health care funding that led to a budget impasse that came dangerously close to forcing a state government shutdown.
But all that seemed forgotten Thursday. Gardiner dismissed a question about whether the newfound cooperation was prompted by this being an election year and fear that voters could toss lawmakers out if they risk more turmoil.
Gardiner and Crisafulli are term-limited and not running for re-election.
“We’re focused on the policy,” Gardiner said. “The elections will happen and those who are running will be held accountable. But for me, it’s about the policy.”
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach scoffed at the political theater. While leaders achieved their wish lists, the needs of many Floridians would not be met this session, Pafford predicted.
“They want to demonstrate that they’re not going to shoot at each other,” Pafford said of Thursday’s action. “It’s going to be a passive type of session.”