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Florida Agonistes: Everybody out of the Water?

Florida is now debating a measure to impose an excise tax on water extraction by Florida water bottling companies.  And there are many questions surrounding this proposal: Is water a natural resource? Is it essential for life? Is water a requirement for advanced civilizations (looking at you, Mayans!)? Do whole ecosystems depend upon a steady stream of fresh water? Duh, duh, duh, and duh.

In Florida, the proposal and the ensuing questions are more than armchair rhetoric. Florida’s freshwater supply exists on a delicate balancing act of keeping limestone soaked, like a sponge left in the sink.  Up until now, we downplayed Florida’s water consumption binge for agriculture and emerald green lawns seated in sandy soil. This addiction to freshwater had its start with the great Florida land boom of the 1920s, one of the precursors of the Great Depression. South Florida land had so much (paper) value that developers destroyed wetlands by the thousands of acres and “straightened” rivers and streams to create mutant canals in scrub pines. One of Florida land development’s early promoters, Hamilton Disston, said: “A good investment beats a lifetime of labor.”

The culmination of this 100-year-old litany of greed, screw-ups, and ignorance has given Florida some of the worst drinking water in the nation. Even the supply of that is in grave doubt.

You can’t make this stuff up:

The people who end up winning elections in Florida are always hot for economic development. Newsflash: backing the truck up to one of Florida’s pristine freshwater springs and pumping out the water is not economic development. It’s just extraction, not different from foreign companies dropping into the Solomon Islands and stripping the forests bare.

Florida’s global behemoth du jour, Nestlé, is a prime mover in sucking the Florida aquifer dry. A cursory digging into the story lets us know that Nestlé really, really cares for the environment, complete with dozens of corporate statements and happy people enjoying nature. In addition to Nestlé, forty companies do business extracting and bottling water.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Nestlé paid for the privilege of removing arguably the most valuable precious resource in Florida: non-salty water. Most companies pay a permit fee of $150 to $300 (much like pulling a permit when building a carport on your home) to get access to those millions of gallons.

At least it’s a start: Legislation has been entered into the state legislature to impose a tax on water extracted for commercial use.

 “We’re just giving our water away, which is crazy.” So says Florida Democrat Sen. Annette Taddeo, who sees clearly that this is not just a rip-off for taxpayers but bad for the physical environment in which they live.

So, it’s an excise tax of 12 ½ cents per gallon. That’s significant, but there’s a pretty good case that this proposal should be defined as a severance tax, like other Florida severance taxes. Why? The severance tax maps the rationale: this is a natural resource in the Common Law sense, held in trust for Florida citizens.

Dating from ancient Rome, this concept has been honored to at least some degree. The extension of the common law is the Public Trust Doctrine. “The Public Trust Doctrine is a common law doctrine rooted in Roman law that holds that specific natural resources like navigable waters be preserved in perpetuity for the public’s benefit. The state acts as a trustee of a common resource and must manage it to benefit current and future generations. A state’s attempts to limit or eliminate public trust rights through a sale or by other means may be found invalid.”

So instead of a money-fueled fight against a proposed law to safeguard Florida’s freshwater springs, it’s not unreasonable for the public to demand adherence to the Florida Constitution:

SECTION 7. Natural resources and scenic beauty.—

(a) It shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty. Adequate provision shall be made by law for the abatement of air and water pollution and of excessive and unnecessary noise and for the conservation and protection of natural resources

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