The ordinary high water line (OHWL) is the boundary line along Florida’s freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams that separates lands owned by the public from lands owned by private interests. Lands lying waterward of the OHWL belongs to the public and lands lying landward of the OHWL is largely in private ownership. The OHWL has long been defined as the ordinary or normal reach of water during the high water season. HB 1103 (Goodson) and its Senate companion bill, SB 1362 (Hays) would change the definition of OHWL to the highest reach of a water body as it usually exists when in its ordinary condition and is not the highest reach during the high water season.

This change in the definition would result in a lowering of the OHWL, thus moving it waterward. As a result, hundreds of thousands of acres of now public land could be shifted to private ownership. Public lands now being used for a variety of outdoor purposes such as hunting, fishing, hiking and the enjoyment of nature could become private property from which the public may be excluded or even charged with trespassing.

These bills have created massive outpourings of opposition from conservation and similarly concerned organizations and citizens from throughout the state. Florida Conservation Coalition member organizations and individuals created powerful opposition to these bills and pressure on members of the Legislature with phone calls, emails, blogs, media contact, and personal visits. It is this sort of coordinated effort that has brought these bills to a standstill.

HB 1103 has been in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee since January 17 and if it makes it out of that committee, it will then go to the State Affairs Committee. Indications are that this bill is in trouble and its future is gloomy. The prospects for SB 1362 look even gloomier, since it has moved nowhere in the Senate and has referrals to the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee and Budget Committee.

But, we should not rest and assume that all is well. Bills often appear dead, only to reappear towards the very end of the Legislative session as amendments to other bills. We must stay watchful.

Estus Whitfield