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Talk to Eugene A. Schiller, the deputy executive director, management services for the Southwest Florida Water Management District and you’ll understand what it means to have a busy day.
WWD recently interviewed Schiller, who explained a wide variety of topics that affect the daily operations at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
WWD: What has been your biggest water-related challenge to date?
Schiller: One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in recent years is resolving the “water wars” among governments in the Tampa Bay area. For nearly a quarter century, local governments had been fighting over limited groundwater resources. The water resources were suffering from overpumping and millions of dollars were being spent in courtrooms, but the “water wars” continued without stopping the environmental damage.
WWD: How did the Southwest Florida Water Management District solve this problem?
Schiller:The Water Management District played a lead role in resolving this conflict by successfully negotiating a Partnership Agreement among all the local governments, the regional water supply authority and the district.
The first step was recognizing that old approaches weren’t working—not one drop of new water was being produced. We clarified our three main goals: restore the environment damaged by reducing pumping, develop a sustainable water supply, and end the costly and nonproductive litigation. By adopting an alternative dispute resolution posture, the district fashioned an agreement that meets the district’s goals and the interests of all the parties.
The agreement is restoring the environment by requiring and meeting a more than 40% reduction in wellfield pumping at the impacted areas. The agreement also requires the district to provide $183 million to help develop sustainable alternative water supplies and $90 million for water conservation projects.
We are currently in the implementation phase of the agreement through 2007. New long-term water source supplies are being brought online, conservation projects are promoting water efficiency and pumping is being reduced in the affected wellfields.
WWD: Of course, everyone is well aware of the hurricanes that found land in the state of Florida late last year. How did these hurricanes end up affecting your day-to-day operations from a water perspective?
Schiller: The 16-county district was ground zero for three major hurricanes, resulting in thousands of hours of manpower recovery effort prior to, during and after the storm events. District personnel went beyond their usual duties to meet the needs of our residents.
We were delivering water in tankers to hospitals, finding and delivering generators, managing emergency distribution centers, clearing debris from roads and waterways, and many other activities. We are committing $3 million toward hurricane-related cleanup activities, and we are working with the local governments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service on an additional $9 million of cleanup and prevention work.
WWD: Watersheds are quite common in the southeast. What efforts have been undertaken by your district to help protect the state’s watersheds?
Schiller: Recognizing that water doesn’t adhere to political boundaries, the district manages the water resources in our 10,000-square-mile area by watersheds—half of the district’s statutory funding capacity is allocated by watersheds. We have identified 11 major watersheds within the district. Working with local governments, utilities and other stakeholders. We have developed comprehensive watershed management plans for each watershed. The plans identify water resource issues and partnership funding opportunities involving water quality, flooding, water supply and natural systems through 2020—now being updated to 2025. These plans serve as guides as the district and 90 local governments prioritize water resource projects. Some of the watershed projects include stormwater management plans, floodplain map updates and education regarding individual behaviors that affect watersheds.
WWD: What role does public-private partnerships play in your operations and what kind of experience have you had with these partnerships?
Schiller:The district believes in public and private partnerships, and leveraging our funds to achieve creative cooperative solutions in all stakeholders’ self interest. Clean water is a universal interest that we all share. The most effective way to address water issues is by partnering with those who share common interests. With the decreasing availability of federal and state funds, creative local cooperative funding options are a necessity to practice sustainable hydrology.
For more than a decade, the district has been partnering with other governmental agencies through cooperative funding programs to leverage more than a billion dollars for beneficial regional and local projects. These partnerships are also extending to private organizations and entities.
WWD: From your perspective, how would you improve the water and wastewater industry?
Schiller: The industry needs to be open to innovative philosophies, technologies and financing methods to develop adaptive solutions in the public interest. The need for alternative financing tools to address water and wastewater needs have grown dramatically.
Documented funding shortfalls exceed $23 billion per year nationally and are expected to grow because federal, state and local environmental mandates and the need to rehabilitate existing water and wastewater infrastructure. While traditional methods to finance infrastructure must be maintained, these existing methods are inadequate to meet current and future funding needs.
One tool that could be authorized is tax exempt financing through the Federal Tax Code’s Private Activity Bond (PAB) section. PABs would offer public-private partnerships the ability to develop more cost-effective, innovate projects while minimizing risk to the rate payer. Allowing the increased issuances of PABs for the financing of water and wastewater facilities, both central and decentralized, by removing the financing cap would give public officials and the industry an additional needed option for meeting the public demand for water and wastewater services, while ensuring compliance with federal, state and local environmental and public health laws.