With billions needed for water projects, Florida needs to get better organized

A crew from the Port St. Lucie Utility Systems Department works to convert a home’s septic system to the municipal sewage system.

Did you know that for all the money being spent on water quality projects in Florida, the state has no comprehensive, well-vetted list of which projects should get priority in terms of funding and start date?

And wouldn’t it be better — for the environment, and for taxpayers — if Florida had a more efficient process for reviewing, approving prioritizing and funding projects, to ensure the biggest bang for the buck?

That’s the provocative question posed in a new report from the nonprofit Florida Tax Watch, which calls on the state to develop a “comprehensive, coordinated, multi-year statewide plan for selecting and funding water projects,” similar to the process by which the state prioritizes transportation dollars.

On the surface it makes a lot of sense — though it may be easier said than done.

Right now, the report concludes, water-quality projects like septic-to-sewer conversions, stormwater infrastructure or water supply, are funded via an “inconsistent and disjointed” process, “scattered across a myriad of grant programs, one-time investments, and recurring programs in the state budget.” A bevy of programs provide fiscal help to local governments; individual state legislators can request projects via the House or Senate Appropriations committees.

It’s chaotic; and despite the fact the state has been allocating record funding for water projects, the report makes the case that there’s little top-level coordination and oversight to ensure the projects getting funded are the ones that should be prioritized, the ones which will provide the greatest return on investment.

But what if Florida treated water projects the way it treats road projects? FDOT has a Five-Year Work Program developed by the department and stakeholders, which includes all planned transportation projects and serves as the department’s de facto budget request. In 2021, the Legislature created a similar system to prioritize and fund flooding and resiliency projects.

Such an approach with water projects would yield greater efficiencies, Florida Tax Watch claims, better prepare the state to meet its drinking-water demands and clean-water needs, and to more effectively fund the staggering number of needed wastewater, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure projects, which federal officials say could total $1 trillion over 10 years.

But setting up the framework could be arduous. As state Rep. Toby Overdorf told the Orlando Sentinel, water projects “happen at the local level. They happen at the statewide level, regional level. So, how does that fit into a work plan? How does that not overlap with comprehensive Everglades restoration or how does it? Those are things that we have yet to work out.”

So the devil may be in the details. Still, we urge you to read the Florida Tax Watch report yourself; it makes sense that the state should institutionalize its approach to funding. This amounts to an admission that Florida’s water problems aren’t going away any time soon.

And as that’s the case, we’ve got to get more efficient at addressing those problems, if they’re ever going to be solved.