Public-Private Partnerships Can "Bridge the Gap" to Resource Sustainability.

Author:Madden, Deborah
Position:Environmental and Land Use Law

The realization Florida's water resources need multiple and creative solutions settled deeper into the collective awareness in 2016 and 2017. Man's footprint on Florida's natural resources is apparent, with natural conditions swinging from flood to drought conditions, and back again, within a matter of months. A mounting urgency to alter the course of resource trends in the near-term and better prepare for Florida's future is upon us. Florida's legislature has provided a set of tools to better attain sustainability, but realizing the full potential has, thus far, proven challenging.

The legislature states its overarching, water resource objective by directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the water management districts (WMDs) to "take into account cumulative impacts on water resources and manage those resources in a manner to ensure their sustainability." (1) Certainly, conservation land acquisition and restoration projects exist throughout Florida. However, these large-scale restoration projects take extraordinary amounts of time, funding, and land to accomplish. On the other side of the spectrum, private lands are regulated to achieve water-resource objectives, yet there are limits to what regulation can achieve because these programs are mandatory and project-specific. Opportunities abound for near-term, innovative solutions to address water-resource needs. Florida's Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program makes feasible, shorter-term, implementable storage, treatment, and recharge solutions, while other longer-term solutions are planned, designed, and constructed. Between regulation and long-term restoration projects, PPPs can bridge the gap.

Florida has taken many steps toward accomplishing these partnerships. Florida's legislature proactively enacted laws encouraging PPPs "to accomplish water storage, groundwater recharge, and water quality improvements on private agricultural lands." (2) In recent years, the legislature and WMDs generously funded PPPs. (3) Inherently, the PPP program relies on private landowner voluntary participation. To induce engagement in PPP projects, private landowners need incentives and certainty in program implementation. Under Florida's statutory framework, PPPs can be swiftly employed to store excess surface water, augment water-quality treatment, recharge aquifers, and even provide refugia for protected species. PPPs can be flexibly designed to complement a range of state programs. (4)

Across the United States, benefits from partnering with landowners to achieve sustainable ecosystems and water resources are being realized. (5) As reviewed by the Property and Environment Research Center, (6) conserving endangered species; improving the quality of water in receiving, drinking waterbodies; and recharging aquifers are all examples of public benefits that can result from partnering. (7) The concept of partnering with private landowners to accomplish public resource benefits is not new. In fact, it has proven successful here in Florida.

This article touches on early examples of PPPs in Florida, reviews PPP contractual terms, and discusses state and federal regulatory programs and hurdles. A review of these topics sheds light on possible innovations to boost PPP implementation.

Early Examples of PPP in Florida Were Successful

In the early 2000s, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) struggled with Lake Okeechobee water-quality issues and extreme rain events, which generated detrimental high-volume discharges to coastal estuaries via the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project. Seeking immediate improvement to both quality and quantity issues, SFWMD turned to area landowners, and the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project (FRESP), a voluntary test program, was born as a pilot program in 2003. (8) FRESP's goal was "to design a 'payment for environmental services' (PES) program in which willing ranch-owner 'sellers' could enter into contracts with state-agency 'buyers' to provide water retention and nutrient load reduction services above and beyond regulatory requirements critical to improving the health of Lake Okeechobee and the estuaries...." (9) Proving successful and cost-effective, the FRESP program evolved to the Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES) in 2011, when SFWMD released its first solicitation for ranchers to submit proposals to provide environmental services. (10) SFWMD also contracts with landowners via their water farming or dispersed water management program, which focus on water management areas designed to 1) retain on-ranch storm water; 2) divert excess flows for storage on fallow farm land; and/or 3) provide nutrient removal through diverting off-site water to management areas for treatment as well as attenuating excessive flows. (11) The program received widespread support. (12) Spreading northward, the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) and Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) embraced pilot programs to address both aquifer recharge and water-quality improvements in 2016. (13) The FRESP and NE-PES experiences elucidate key contractual terms, giving insight into opportunities to streamline and collaborate with state planning.

Restructuring the Deal: Hallmarks of PPP Agreements and Options to Improve

A challenge in PPPs is orchestrat ing water-resource concerns with legislative funding and agency and landowner interests. Through experience, Florida agencies and landowners are developing awareness of PPP project types, associated contract terms, and regulatory constructs. Lessons...

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