In Florida, whose water is it, anyway?

A valve on Goldenrod Road dumps 37,000 gallons of drinking water daily to prevent the remaining water in a pipeline from going stale. Experts think such a scene will soon be from a bygone era as utilities and other entities fight to control and hoard every drop. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel)

The next time you go to your kitchen faucet for a drink, think about who owns that water.

Because for every expert who says it belongs to you, others counter you merely have Florida's permission to use it, and you pay only for having water sanitized and pumped into your home.

That disagreement illustrates an intensifying debate over whether the state should regulate water in the future as essentially the private property of metropolitan utilities, agricultural corporations and owners of large properties.

The long-standing approach has been to protect increasingly scarce supplies, including the nearly tapped-out aquifer that serves most of the state, for the benefit of Florida's residents, its environment and as an essential element of life that nobody can claim to own.

"Whose water is it?" said Audubon of Florida legislative adviser Mary Jean Yon.

Already, serious tensions over scarce supplies span the state, including a Panhandle fight over proposed wells, Jacksonville's contested pumping of the Floridan Aquifer, Orange County's quest to tap a reservoir on remote ranchland and high-stakes competition over South Florida's Lake Okeechobee.

Former Gov. Bob Graham recently launched the Florida Conservation Coalition to thwart what he calls the "privatizing" of water supplies.

Graham said he is concerned in part because of actions by Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers this year to shrink and weaken state-watchdog agencies and a proposed law that would give utilities greater control over sources.

Asked who is behind those measures: "I don't know," Graham said. "Those who appear to have privatization as their goal aren't going to announce that that's their goal."

"If I were game-planning private ownership of water … many of the things happening in the Legislature would provide the leading edge," Graham said.

Not all environmentalists are comfortable using the word "privatization" but worry about the state's control of supplies gradually being taken over by utilities and private entities. They say it could result in rising bills for homeowners, harm to the state's environment and some local governments using expanded rights to monopolize development.

For now, most people may know little about the source and price of their water.

What flows from a kitchen tap in Orlando was, just the day before, 1,500 feet deep in porous limestone of the Floridan Aquifer, where it had been for most of a century.

An Orlando Utilities Commission bill for a household using 10,000 gallons in a month charges $5.35 for operations; $5.02 for customer service; $4.84 for machinery and property; $1.63 for electricity and chemicals; 99 cents for meter reading; and 65 cents in fees — or profit — to the city.

A cup of water, then, costs about one one-hundredth of a penny; but not one penny is spent on the water itself, according to even to local utility officials.

"What you pay for is what it cost to withdraw it from the ground, the cost to treat it, what it costs to transmit it," said Lee "Chip" Merriam, legislative- and regulatory-compliance officer at Orlando Utilities Commission.

Teresa Remudo-Fries, deputy director of Orange County Utilities, said, "We all pay for the cost associated with using the water, not for owning it."

Other experts, such as Jake Varn, a former state environmental regulator and now a Tallahassee attorney specializing in water, dispute that water isn't owned.

"That's poppycock," said Varn, who does agree that aquifer and river waters are state-owned but not the waters captured and pumped by a utility.