The early history of water policy in Florida dealt mostly with drainage and flood control, particularly in central and southern Florida. Between 1907 and 1929, the Everglades Drainage District built 440 miles of canals in the Everglades area. In the 1930s, the Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee was constructed to guard the neighboring communities from floods connected with heavy precipitation during tropical storms.
In 1949, the U.S. Congress approved the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project. Constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers over a period of about 15 years, this new infrastructure changed the hydrology of the entire Kissimmee, Okeechobee, and Everglades Basins to offer flood control, drainage, and water supply for all of south Florida. The Florida legislature created the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District (later to become the South Florida Water Management District) as the state partner for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Following floods in 1959 and 1960, the Southwest Florida Water Management District also was formed. In the late 1960s, both Districts began wanting consent for water withdrawals.
Before 1972, Florida's water law was based in general law doctrines that had developed through custom and case law in the eastern United States beginning in colonial times. During the 1950s and 1960s, Frank E. Maloney, a professor and afterward a dean of the University Of Florida College Of Law, carried out wide research on Florida case law regarding surface water, groundwater, diffused surface water, and water pollution.
When Florida's populace began to grow speedily in the 1950s, policymakers and water managers started to quarrel for a more unified solution to water quality and quantity problems, and for a more incorporated regulatory structure at the state level. In 1972, the Florida legislature met during one of Florida's periodic, extended droughts to tackle growing concerns about deficiencies in the institutional mechanisms for water management. The 1972 legislature responded by enacting the Florida Water Resources Act of 1972.
The Florida Water Resources Act of 1972 (Chapter 373, Florida Statutes) is mostly based on Frank Maloney's A Model Water Code. The Act established a form of administrative water law that brought all waters of the state under regulatory control. The Act included provisions for:
- the establishment of a state water regulatory agency and five water management districts (WMDs) that, taken together, cover the entire state;
- water planning requirements; and
- a permit system administered by the WMDs for water use, well construction, and the storage and management of surface water.
The Act differed from Professor Maloney's code in that it omitted the sections on water pollution control.