9 Investigates St. John's River Water Management District



ORLANDO, Fla. - If you want to lobby the Florida Legislature, you need to register.  If you want to lobby the city of Orlando, you need to register.  If you want to lobby the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, you need to register. 

However, if you want to lobby any one of Florida’s special districts, you don’t need to disclose anything.

Across the state there are hundreds of special districts. Most are small and have very little authority, but not all.

The Saint John’s River Water Management District covers all or part of 18 central and eastern Florida counties. 

St. John’s is one of five water management districts across the state charged with preserving and managing Florida’s fresh water supply. 

The St. John’s, according to its own records, took in $82 million in property tax revenue in 2012 to support its efforts.  But, because Florida’s water districts are by designation “special districts” each is under no obligation to disclose lobbyist activities at the district.

“If you’re spending taxpayer money and there’s a lobbyist involved in the spending of that money, then there should be at least some basic lobbyist disclosure,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.  "Disclosure is the key to accountability."

In 2009, Niagara Bottling received a permit to pump water from the Floridian Aquifer.  Then, earlier this year, the SJRWD approved a new deal for Niagara, allowing the company to increase its daily draw from 484,000 gallons a day to 910,000 gallons a day. 

The highly controversial decision came amid complaints by residents, environmentalists and city leaders.  The decision also came at the same time that hundreds of Lake County residents with private wells for irrigation were being told they needed to conserve.

“I don’t think it’s right that a bottling company should be able to pull it and ship it elsewhere for sale,” said Lake County resident Lindsey Spencer.

Spencer has a 90-foot well that he uses for irrigation. However, according to the SJRWD, Spencer can only use the water two days a week.

“In another 10 or 15 years, we’re going to be looking for water. We’re going to be running out of water,” said Spencer.  “I don’t give it to some big company to sell elsewhere.”

On Tuesday, the Florida Senate passed SB 846, a bill designed to increase accountability and transparency at Florida’s special districts. 

The bill, which is now headed to the Florida House, would require the same level of registration and reporting of lobbyist activities within special districts that is required in the Florida Legislature. 

Reports by the lobbyists would also have to be filed detailing compensation and registration.