Turning Flood Waters Into Fountains of Florida Green

Turning Flood Waters Into Fountains of Florida Green

Florida’s rainstorms are unlike anything most of our neighbors in the other forty-nine states experience. We can get more inches in a couple of hours than Las Vegas sees in a year. It’s part of what makes Florida so lush and green . . . and part of what makes living here such a challenge.

Because all of that rain has to go somewhere. In many of our cities, that somewhere is in the streets, yards, and even into homes and businesses.

We’ve learned to remove that water, laying pipes that take the rushing current of rain away. We’ve also learned to store it in retention ponds both to solve the flooding problem and to reduce the environmental impact of all the gunk the rain washes out of our lawns and off our streets.

This strategy, alas, usually ends up wasting millions of gallons of water, dumping them where they provide little or no benefit to anyone and sometimes considerable harm. Still, drain, capture and retain is the normal order of the storm water day.

Water issues in Florida, of course, are about much more than the rain. To begin with, there is our collective need for potable water that is safe, sufficient and reliable. As Florida’s population continues to grow, and as our economic development model shifts toward industries where the demand for water may be greater, our need for usable water both to drink and for other purposes increases. At the same time, as we build more infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings, parking lots), the need for cost-effective and environmentally sound strategies for handling our heavy rains expands dramatically. Finally, as the percentage of Florida that is not developed diminishes, the need to preserve and protect what remains (in fairness, it’s still a lot of undeveloped land) grows more urgent.

The irony (I think that’s the right word) is that many cities and counties are worrying about the amount of fresh water they are permitted to draw from aquifers and surface water sources at the same time that they are struggling to divert and retain millions of gallons of rain water that otherwise flood roads and buildings and carry boatloads of contaminants into the surrounding natural environment.

In both cases, it’s the same resource: water. But often they are seen as distinct issues.

Not in Altamonte Springs.

Leaders in the City of Altamonte Springs clearly saw the nexus of storm water flooding, environmental contamination, the limitations on usable water resources, and planned new construction, in this case on I-4. They also saw beyond this cluster to the needs of other communities. Looking beyond their formal governmental responsibilities and their jurisdictional boundaries, Altamonte Springs hatched an innovative plan.

That plan involves the Florida Department of Transportation (which will be producing more storm water runoff and was facing the acquisition, construction and maintenance of large retention ponds just to hold it all), the City of Apopka (which could use more water flowing into its reuse system, preserving potable water for drinking and related uses), and the City of Altamonte Springs (which was interested in increasing its supply of reuse water and reducing the occasional damage to the Crane’s Roost ecosystem when heavy rains triggered the release of untreated storm water runoff).

It needs to be said here that as much as the various needs might look like a marriage made in heaven, anyone familiar with organizational boundaries and standard operating procedures will understand that the “future in-laws” in this “marriage” were not that likely to see eye-to-eye. Indeed, some would suggest that neighboring cities often see themselves as rivals more than partners (though my experience suggests more of a friendly than of a fierce rivalry). And when it comes to intergovernmental collaboration, historically one of the most difficult areas to address has been the accommodation of local priorities in the development of our nation’s Interstate highway system.

But Altamonte Springs, FDOT and Apopka found a path forward. It’s a path forward that builds on the natural, if often neglected, linkage of storm water to usable water. It invites each agency to make an appropriate contribution, to derive some benefit from so doing, and to gain some credit for responsible management of both our natural environment and their financial resources.

This sort of collaboration between local governments and even between the state and local governments is not an isolated event. It is, however, less common than might best serve the interests of Florida’s citizens.

The “why” isn’t necessarily about poor leadership or absurdly parochial interests. Our institutions are designed in such a way that the costs of cross-jurisdictional and cross-agency collaboration often appear to outweigh the benefits, at least for leaders. To appreciate the success of this project, we need to appreciate the distinctive challenges such regional collaboration entails. When we do, the achievement of Altamonte Springs, Apopka, and the Florida Department of Transportation becomes that much more remarkable.

Because, in the end, this isn’t really about water. It’s about how public leaders can and must see beyond the built-in costs of working across conventional boundaries if we are to serve the greater good.

Next: The Costs of Public Collaboration