Agri Leader

Senate bill targets water storage as a priority

A bill that would create new incentives for water storage projects on farmlands is moving through the Florida Senate and its sponsor expects it to become law.

Senate Bill 312, introduced at the start of the current legislative session by State Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby), would allow farmers with water storage projects on their land to maintain their agricultural greenbelt tax classifications.

Greenbelt tax classifications are granted by local tax assessors to landowners who operate agricultural businesses. The land is then valued according to the value of its agricultural activities, not the actual underlying value of the real estate. There are various agricultural greenbelt tax rates based on production of specific crops such as citrus or tomatoes.

Simpson's bill would also exempt water storage projects on farmlands from being considered income-producing ventures, making them more fiscally viable. "Farmers will be paid very little per acre to store water on their land," Simpson said. "But some property appraisers could say, 'Well wait a second, you're not really producing an agricultural product on this land. You're storing water. And you're getting paid to do that, even though the pay is low. So we are no longer going to offer you a greenbelt classification.' And that would mean their property taxes would go up and could be higher than what they're being paid to store water."

The ultimate goal of his legislation, Simpson said, is to provide another tool for the South Florida Water Management District to work with landowners to find innovative and effective ways to store water.

Water management and conservation have been key policy goals of Agriculture Commissioner

Adam H. Putnam since he first took office. He often cites water management as critical to the future of Florida's agricultural industry and overall economy.

"I agree with Commissioner Putnam and I believe that water has been the No. 1 most important policy issue in Florida for many years," Simpson said. "And I believe we now have the willpower in the legislature to enact new and impactful statewide water policies."

SB 312 represents a smart and innovative policy under the broader banner of water management and conservation, Simpson said. "It's just common sense. So I think it has a very good chance of becoming law."

The bill was expected to clear the Senate appropriations committee in late April and then come to a floor vote.

Supporters of the proposed legislation, as well as water management policy in general, include leaders of both parties in both the Florida House and Senate, Simpson said. He knows of no opposition to the bill.

Industry supporters include Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Florida Farm Bureau Federation. "All of the major farming organizations support the legislation as far as I know," Simpson said. "And we've also had the full support of Commissioner Putnam."

Once the bill passes the legislature and is signed into law, water management districts, in cooperation with Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and basin boards, could begin identifying major landowners, including farmers with available acreage, that could store water on a large scale.

"The water management districts and basin boards know the places where they could store a tremendous amount of water, based on local topiary maps," Simpson said. "That means they can easily identify the farmers whose lands are right for these kinds of projects. They already know who to go talk to if this becomes state policy."

Among the farmers that support Simpson's efforts is Ron Edwards, president and CEO of Vero Beach-based Evans Properties, which grew citrus on 970 acres in Indian River County for almost two decades until citrus greening and hurricanes wiped out the operation.

Edwards, who holds a greenbelt tax classification on land that is now fallow, has entered into a three-year water farming pilot project with South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).

Water farming projects capture storm water and intentionally flood land and hold water as a storage tactic.

The three-year $1.3 million project, with about half the funding provided by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Florida DEP and the other half by SFWMD, will not generate as much revenue as citrus production, Evans said, but will allow him to keep his land in the agriculture industry and support the state's overall water management and conservation goals.

"If this works, it allows the land to be put to work for another useful cause, but also be available for future citrus farming if we come up with a cure for greening," Evans said, adding that his SFWMD project, if successful, could be extended for as much as 10 more years.

SFWMD has now initiated a total of three water farming pilot projects.

Like Simpson, Evans agrees with Putnam's commitment to water management and conservation as a top priority.

"I agree 100 percent with Commissioner Putnam's definition of water management and conservation being one of the state's major problems today and in the future," he said. "And water farming, I believe, is probably one of the things that can be done quickly."

In addition, he said, innovative ideas such as Simpson's legislation help ensure the long-term economic and environmental well-being of the state.