Handbook of Florida Water Regulation: Florida Water Management Districts1

Michael T. Olexa, Tatiana Borisova, and Jarrett Davis 2


This handbook is designed to provide an accurate, current, and authoritative summary of the principal federal and state (Florida) laws that directly or indirectly relate to agriculture. This handbook provides a basic overview of the many rights and responsibilities that farmers and farmland owners have under both federal and state laws as well as the appropriate contact information to obtain more detailed information. However, the reader should be aware that because the laws, administrative rulings, and court decisions on which this handbook is based are subject to constant revision, portions of this publication could become outdated at any time. Several details of cited laws are also left out due to space limitations.

This handbook is distributed with the understanding that the authors are not engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice, and the information contained herein should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. This handbook is not all inclusive in providing information to achieve compliance with the federal and state laws and regulations governing water protection. For these reasons, the use of these materials by any person constitutes an agreement to hold harmless the authors, the UF/IFAS Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Law, the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and the University of Florida for any liability claims, damages, or expenses that may be incurred by any person as a result of reference to or reliance on the information contained in this handbook.

Florida Water Management Districts: Overview

The five Florida water management districts (FWMDs) play a significant role in the regulation of water use in the state.

Historically, three of Florida's five water management districts (FWMD)—Northwest, Suwannee River, and Saint Johns River Water Management Districts—were created as public agencies (pursuant to Chapter 373, Florida Statutes, known as the Florida Water Resources Act of 1972). The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) were created statutorily to address flooding and water shortage problems (see Figure 1, for the map of areas under the jurisdiction of each FWMD).

Figure 1. Florida's Five Water Management Districts
Figure 1.  Florida's Five Water Management Districts
Credit: St. Johns River Water Management District (2017), About the District. http://www.sjrwmd.com/maps.html

Responsibilities of the FWMDs are wide and they include:

  • Properly utilizing groundwater and surface water resources by water supply and demand planning and management, including:

    • Promoting the health, safety, and general welfare of the people of the state (includes the power to implement water shortage emergency plans).

    • Creating a Water Supply Plan that identifies future water supply needs for a 20-year planning horizon, and updating the Plan every five years.

    • Assisting local governments in developing comprehensive local water management plans, particularly by providing data on water resources.

    • Developing and piloting one alternative water supply project (i.e., with water source alternative to groundwater) within a restricted allocation area (for the list of eligible areas, see Chapter 373 Florida Statutes, section 373.037).

    • Adopting rules incentivizing water conservation.

  • Management of surface water, groundwater, and related lands, including:

    • Developing a priority list of water bodies to establish minimum water flows and water levels) (districts may establish minimum flows for their works and water courses below which further water withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology, and minimum water levels for groundwater and surface water).

    • Regulating dams, impoundments, reservoirs, and other structures to alter surface water movement.

    • Combating damage from floods, soil erosion, and excessive drainage.

    • Maintaining navigable rivers and harbors.

    • Participating in flood control programs and the reclamation, conservation, and protection of lands from water surplus or deficiencies.

  • Springs protection:

    • Identifying priority focus areas for 33 of Florida's historic first magnitude springs referred to as Outstanding Florida Springs (OFS), including their associated spring runs, as well as De Leon, Peacock, Poe, Rock, Wekiwa, and Gemini Springs, in coordination with Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

    • Reporting and strategic planning: Developing annual strategic plans and reports that outline goals and successes, as well as detail the management of each FWMD's water resources (e.g., in the South Florida Water Management District, this responsibility includes reports on Lake Okeechobee and Everglades protection and restoration).

What is the structure of Florida Water Management Districts?

Each district is run by a governing board consisting of at least nine members. The members, who are selected from statutorily designated areas within each district, serve staggered four-year terms and are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. The governing board sets the policies that will best meet each district's needs. The governing board appoints the district's executive director, who directs all FWMD activities. Generally, an executive director is responsible for the operation of each district, including the implementation of policies and rules. Typically, each district is divided into divisions that handle the various permitting programs. Each district is fully equipped to conduct its own inspections, testing, and impact studies.

In addition, the Southwest Florida Water Management District is further divided into watershed basins, which are overseen by basin boards. Each board must consist of at least three people, one from each member county. Basin board members are appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the state senate, and serve staggered three-year terms. Basin boards have the authority to prepare engineering plans for water resource development, create secondary water-use plans, submit annual budgets, approve construction plans of work for their districts, and provide assistance to local water supply authorities. Basically, basin boards are responsible for identifying water resource concerns and problems within their respective areas and adopting budgets to address and fund the resolution of such concerns. For more information about the basin boards, see Florida Statute, Chapter 373, section 0693, and Southwest Florida Water Management District' Governing Board website at http://my.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/xweb about us/governing board.

What permits are issued by the FWMDs?

The powers of FWMD governing boards include administering the permit programs of Chapter 373, Florida Statutes. Permit programs are designed to insure that various human activities are conducted in a way that protects water resources. The FWMDs are responsible for the following permitting:

  • Permits for consumptive uses of water; note that consumptive use is any use of water that reduces water availability in the source from which the water is withdrawn or diverted (e.g., consider withdrawals of groundwater); individual or general permits are used to regulate consumptive uses of water and protect water resources (For more information on consumptive use permits, please see FE604);

  • Well construction permits—such permits are required to install a water well; the permits are issued to insure that well construction and operation do not detrimentally impact water resources; the permits also ensure that wells meet durability and safety requirements (For more information on construction permits, please see FE603);

  • Environmental resource permits—issued for the management and storage of surface waters, including stormwater runoff from construction and dredging and filling in wetlands (For more information on environmental resource permits, please see http://www.dep.state.fl.us/Water/wetlands/erp/index.htm);

  • Right-of-way occupancy—such permits are revocable licenses that are issued only in the South Florida Water Management District to protect the District's ability to effectively and safely use the canal and levee rights of way while providing for compatible public and private uses such as docks, fences, or walkways (For more information on right-of-way permits, please see https://www.sfwmd.gov/doing-business-with-us/permits/right-of-way); and

  • Works of the district—issued by Suwannee River Water Management District and South Florida Water Management District for proposed activities along major water bodies or watercourses, or projects that will discharge into certain drainage basins.

Each FWMD has specific criteria detailing the types of activities that require permits, the contents of permit applications, the procedures that surround the submission of applications, and areas specifically exempted from permitting requirements. Florida's governor and state cabinet, sitting as the Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission, have authority to review any orders or rules of the FWMDs (see http://cabinet.myflorida.com/flwac/flwac_index.html).

More information about permits and permit requirements by the FWMDs can be found at the FWMD permitting portal at http://flwaterpermits.com/.

FWMD and Surface Water Improvement and Management (SWIM) Act

In 1987, the Florida Legislature created the SWIM Act to protect, restore, and maintain Florida's surface water quality. FWMDs are directly responsible for the SWIM act, but work in connection with the FDEP, state and local governments, and the private sector. The SWIM Act requires the FWMDs to identify a list of priority waterbodies and develop plans to restore the damaged ecosystem, prevent pollution from stormwater runoff and other sources, and educate the public. For a list of priority waterbodies in each FWMD please visit: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/water/watersheds/swim.htm.

What can FWMDs tax?

Most indicative of their broad powers is the ability of FWMDs to levy ad valorem taxes (property taxes). Ad valorem taxes are levied based on the value of the property in question. The Florida Constitution establishes a millage cap, and millage rates are additionally limited by statute.

Each FWMD is different. As with other government tax provisions, a landowner's failure to pay can result in a lien on the taxed property, including the homestead, and ultimately, the vesting of title by tax forfeiture to the state.


The authors are indebted to the personnel of both state and federal agencies who provided their time and advice in the preparation of this handbook. We acknowledge Carol Fountain and Susan Gildersleeve at the University of Florida for their assistance in editing this handbook. We also acknowledge funding received for updating this publication from the 2016 Wells Fargo Extension Professional Award and Program Enhancement Grant (Principal Investigator is Tatiana Borisova).


1. This document is FE594, one of a series of the Food and Resource Economics Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date October 1998. Revised June 2017. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
2. Michael T. Olexa, professor, Food and Resource Economics Department, and director, UF/IFAS Center for Agricultural and Natural Resource Law; Tatiana Borisova, associate professor, Food and Resource Economics Department; and Jarrett Davis, student, Levin College of Law; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #FE594

Date: 2018-02-27
Borisova, Tatiana

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