PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Paula Dockery 2005 HONOREE

State Senator, Florida

Water wars have raged in Florida for decades, but earlier this year, state Senator Paula Dockery brokered a truce.

Paula DockerySince being elected to the House in 1996 (representing the Lakeland area between Tampa and Orlando), Dockery, 44, has demonstrated the ability to build consensus among groups with a history of contention. After one term, she was chosen to chair the Environmental Protection Committee — not because of her expertise on the subject but for her skill at fostering agreements among disparate players.

Dockery, a Republican whose family-run enterprises include citrus and cattle, then dedicated herself to learning about the state’s environmental issues. In 1999, she authored the Florida Forever initiative, which provides $300 million a year to purchase land for preservation. That program was widely praised by business interests and environmentalists alike.

After election to the state Senate in 2002, Dockery became chair of the Environmental Preservation Committee. She began hearing from community developers that Florida’s efforts to set aside water for environmental preservation were hindering the state’s ability to handle its growing population.

The state needed a water plan. But environmental groups, developers, agricultural interests and local communities all were locked in a struggle to wrest control of an increasingly overburdened water supply. Dockery spent much of 2003 and 2004 developing legislation to determine how much water the state should devote to conservation, and how much should be available for drinking and irrigation. As the end of the 2004 legislative session approached, however, Dockery realized that not everyone was on board. She could push a bill through, but the legislation wouldn’t satisfy each of the shareholders involved.

So Dockery started over, and for the next 12 months, she devoted herself to bringing together anyone with an interest in the state’s water future to help craft a workable water plan. Discussions with two or three advocates quickly grew into sessions with several dozen people. Ultimately, more than 120 people — business leaders, agriculture representatives, environmentalists, home builders, city and county officials, tourism workers, public utilities managers — began showing up at monthly meetings.

Throughout the process, Dockery always prized consensus above all else. “She said, ’Look, we either have everybody agree to the language in this bill, or we’re not going to have a bill,’” says Rebecca O’Hara, who until recently was a counsel to the Florida League of Cities. “In an age where you usually have all these special interests involved in writing legislation, that’s a pretty remarkable thing for a legislator to do.”

The work group meetings didn’t always go smoothly. “The participants started on absolutely opposite sides,” says Dockery. What’s more, three months’ worth of meetings were cancelled because four hurricanes hit Florida in rapid succession. “The state’s deluged with water, and here we are saying we have a water shortage,” Dockery says. “It sounded like we were off the mark. But as soon as the water receded, we were right back to the problem.”

As the meetings progressed, Dockery realized the solution to the problem was deceptively simple: increase the amount of water available. “If you have a certain ’pie’ of water, and you need it for drinking, agriculture and environmental preservation, you have three options,” she says. “You can take from one and give to another. You can continue to try to conserve. Or you can develop alternative sources of water to reduce competition among all those parties.”

The measure, which was signed by Governor Jeb Bush in June, provides $300 million to help local officials develop alternative sources, including desalination, aquifer storage, above-ground reservoirs and sewer reuse. Local water districts must match state investments dollar for dollar, so the plan encourages municipalities to form regional authorities and focus on water-supply problems across community lines.

But the law’s most surprising accomplishment is that it pleases the players on every side of the water debate. That feat, says Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, was almost surreal. “When we announced the bill, you had environmental lobbyists sitting at a computer working on a press release with representatives from the state Chamber of Commerce. I looked around and said, ’Take a picture of this, because you’re never going to see this again.’”

— Zach Patton
Photo by Jaycarlson.com