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A Depleted Aquifer Stymied Plans for a Stronach Ranch, Until a Florida Governor Intervened

 

Stronach, now 89 years old, was active in the Austrian Parliment as recently as 2014.

This seems to be an obvious case of money opening doors.  Here it even got  the St Johns River Water Management District to miraculously find a new water model that gave them the results that Stronach wanted, and which further destroyed one of Florida’s iconic springs.

This issuance of the permit for Stronach is one of Florida’s most shameful dark moments and a blot  not only on those would-be scientists who prostituted themselves at SJRMD and their executive director, but also our shameless  DEP and governor.  To this we add Judge E. Gary Early who also failed justice.

We are proud to say that Jim Gross, who is mentioned in this article, is one of OSFR’s advisors.

This shameful housecleaning by Tallahassee is described in one of our posts and can be seen here.

Read the original article here at theglobeandmail.com.  The Globe and Mail is a principal newspaper in Canada which had a readership two million in 2015.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
jim.tatum@oursantaferiver.org
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum


A Depleted Aquifer Stymied Plans for a Stronach Ranch, Until a Florida Governor Intervened

Frank Stronach In: A Depleted Aquifer Stymied Plans for a Stronach Ranch, Until a Florida Governor Intervened | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Franz Stronach

Among rolling hills near Ocala, Fla., herds of cattle graze in the blazing sun. In the shade of moss-draped cypress trees, they cool themselves amid the company of egrets. This is Frank Stronach’s cattle ranch, alternately named Adena Farms or Sleepy Creek, an inland idyll four hours’ drive and a world away from the pulsing energy of Miami.

After the auto parts, horse racing and gambling businesses, Mr. Stronach intended this to be his next big thing: grass-fed beef. Starting in 2008, he amassed 384 square kilometres of land – an area nearly four times the size of the city of Orlando – built a slaughterhouse and brought in 8,000 head of cattle. Down the road, he added a golf course.

But from the beginning there was one big problem: water.

Canadian magnates, American influence: Stronach empire injects millions into U.S. politics

Florida’s swift population growth has significantly depleted the aquifer that supplies most of the drinking water to the northern and central parts of the state. The decline has been particularly noticeable in Ocala. The town is best known for Silver Springs, an opening in the aquifer where the water glows a luminous blue and tourists cruise in glass-bottomed boats over a network of submerged caverns. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, average water flows at the springs dropped by nearly a third.

So when Mr. Stronach’s ranch applied in 2011 for a permit to pump nearly 50 million litres daily to water the grass, it sparked a firestorm. Adena eventually cut back the request to 5.5 million litres daily, but that did little to assuage local environmental activists. They often showed up to protest Mr. Stronach’s public appearances in the area, petitioned state officials to turn down the application and went to court in a bid to stop it.

There was even more intrigue going on behind the scenes.

The St. Johns River Water Management District is the government agency in charge of allocating water use in this part of Florida, including approving or denying permits. One of five regional districts set up in the 1970s to oversee the state’s scarce water, it was meant to put such decisions in the hands of scientists, and out of those of politicians.

But according to former employees of the district, the administration of Rick Scott, Florida’s former Republican governor, repeatedly interfered in ways that helped Mr. Stronach and other permit seekers like him.

Jeff Cole, the water management district’s then-chief of staff, said officials in Mr. Scott’s office and at the Department of Environmental Protection frequently asked Mr. Cole to change water policy to allow more consumption. The calls typically

Experience Environmental Policy Coordinator Office of the Governor, State of Florida December 2012 – Present (2 years 10 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Advise the Governor and staff on policy and budget issues related to energy, agriculture, and the environment. - Work with state agencies on policy and budget issues related to energy, agriculture, and the environment. - Supervise policy and budget analysts. - Represent the Governor's Office of Policy and Budget before the legislature on policy and budget issues related to energy, agriculture, and the environment. President Voter Opinions, LLC July 2011 – December 2012 (1 year 6 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Provided polling services to local, state, and congressional candidates within Florida. - Provided fast, accurate, and discrete polling services to political campaigns. - Managed all aspects of the company, including staff and budget. Director of Legislative Affairs The Everglades Foundation November 2010 – December 2012 (2 years 2 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Managed legislative affairs and outreach to the Florida legislature. - Advised the Everglades Foundation regarding state policy and budget issues. - Developed coalitions and managed issue advocacy campaigns. President Brightwater Strategies, LLC June 2010 – December 2012 (2 years 7 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Provided legislative and executive affairs services to non-profit organizations on issues ranging from juvenile justice to the environment. - Advised non-profit organizations on policy development and strategic planning. - Assisted non-profit organizations with securing state appropriations. - Managed all aspects of the company, including staff and budget. President Campaign Facts, LLC June 2010 – December 2012 (2 years 7 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Provided opposition research services to state, local, and congressional candidates. - Provided policy research services to support issue advocacy campaigns. - Managed all aspects of the company, including staff and budget. Attorney Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell June 2008 – June 2010 (2 years 1 month)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Represented clients before the Florida legislature and executive agencies. - Practiced before Florida's circuit and appellate courts, as well as the Florida Supreme Court. - Practiced law focusing on corporate defense, employment law, and environmental law. Deputy Policy Chief - Environment and Natural Resources Council Florida House of Representatives November 2006 – December 2007 (1 year 2 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Researched and drafted legislation and amendments to legislation. - Advised legislators on policy issues. - Analyzed and objectively summarized proposed legislation. Legislative Analyst - Office of Procedure and Policy Florida House of Representatives January 2006 – November 2006 (11 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Assisted in creating the "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future" book. - Advised legislators on policy issues. - Worked with legislators on special projects. Legislative Lobbyist Florida Department of Environmental Protection August 2002 – August 2005 (3 years 1 month)Tallahassee, Florida Area - Lobbied the state legislature on behalf of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). - Negotiated legislation with stakeholders on behalf of the Secretary of DEP. - Assisted in coordinating and formulating the agency’s legislative agenda with the Secretary. Redistricting Law Clerk Tripp Scott, P.A. August 2001 – August 2002 (1 year 1 month)Tallahassee, Florida Area Senate Liaison Republican Party of Florida February 2000 – July 2001 (1 year 6 months)Tallahassee, Florida Area
Noah Valenstein

came from Noah Valenstein, Mr. Scott’s environmental policy adviser, and Jon Steverson, an official with the department of environmental protection, Mr. Cole said.

SRWMDDEc steverson In: A Depleted Aquifer Stymied Plans for a Stronach Ranch, Until a Florida Governor Intervened | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River
Jon Steverson

“It was not at all unusual for them to give direction on what they wanted to see – typically, it was water policy that was less protective of the environment and less protective of water supply,” he said. “Once Rick Scott got into office, they started getting involved. His office and his staff came in and took significant control. They were pretty heavy-handed.”

JimGrosspodium
Jim Gross

Jim Gross, a top hydrologist at the district at the time, confirmed Mr. Cole’s account. He said the district crafted long-term water management plans in 2011 and 2014 that were both put on ice after complaints from Mr. Scott’s office. Mr. Gross recalled one meeting in 2014, for instance, at which Mr. Cole told his subordinates the governor did not like the district’s planning.

“The governor’s office had told the agency that he will not accept the draft district supply plan and that it must be scrapped, thrown in the trash, because the plan had found that significant harm to water resources was already occurring due to excessive withdrawals of water,” said Mr. Gross, now executive director of Florida Defenders of the Environment.

Mr. Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature tried to help Adena in other ways, too. As part of a 2012 tax cut package, they included a tax break on electricity for slaughterhouses. The Miami Herald reported the measure was specifically designed as an incentive for the Stronach company’s slaughterhouse near Ocala….

Over the past two decades, Stronach-connected companies have donated more than US$1.4-million directly to the Florida Republican Party, another US$1.4-million to Republican-connected political action committees and hundreds of thousands more to individual politicians.

Two PACs connected to Mr. Scott, Let’s Get to Work and New Republican PAC, have received a combined US$150,000. Photographs from the 2018 edition of the Pegasus World Cup, the marquee race at Stronach-owned Gulfstream Park horse track, show Mr. Scott posing with Mr. Stronach and his daughter, former federal cabinet minister Belinda Stronach.

Mr. Stronach’s golf course at Adena also played host to a fundraiser for Adam Putnam, then Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, in the summer of 2017, which Mr. Stronach attended. Over the next year, several U.S. Stronach Group companies gave a combined US$314,775.44 to Mr. Putnam and his PAC, Florida Grown.

Mr. Putnam had no direct control over the water management district, but did play some part in setting bigger-picture water policy. At the time, he was also the odds-on favourite to succeed Mr. Scott as governor. Only when then-president Donald Trump stepped into the race to endorse Mr. Putnam’s rival for the Republican nomination, Ron DeSantis, did Mr. Putnam fall behind, and Mr. DeSantis went on to win both the nomination and the election.

The Florida donations were part of at least US$24-million Stronach companies have given to U.S. political causes over the past 20 years. Thirty-two Stronach businesses contributed to at least 662 American politicians, political action committees and referendum campaigns. It is legal for foreign-owned companies to make political contributions in the U.S., but only if the foreign owners and employees play no part in the decision to donate.

Mr. Stronach declined to answer The Globe and Mail’s questions on Adena and political contributions.

Mr. Gross, the former hydrologist with the St. Johns River Water Management District, said he and other scientists ran more than 100 simulations to estimate the effect Mr. Stronach’s ranch would have on water levels if it received a permit.

Under every scenario, Mr. Gross found, the ranch would have depleted the aquifer at unacceptable rates, reducing water levels at Silver Springs and the Silver River, drying up wetlands and killing off habitat for fish. Based on this work, district staff recommended denying the ranch a permit in 2014.

Ahead of that decision, e-mails obtained by The Globe reveal, the Stronach Group’s lobbyists pushed back against the district’s method of modelling the effects of Adena’s proposed water consumption.

The lobbyists met with water district officials on at least three occasions from March to May of 2014. The sit-downs included Michael Minton, an agriculture industry lobbyist with the firm Dean Mead; Marc Dunbar, Mr. Stronach’s long-time Florida lobbyist; Mike Haridopolos, a former Florida state senator who went on to become an executive vice-president at the Stronach Group; Hans Tanzler, the water district’s then-executive director; and John Miklos, the chair of the water district’s board, appointed by Mr. Scott.

Ahead of one meeting, in March of 2014 at Dean Mead’s offices in Orlando, Mr. Minton wrote that he wanted to “list our model concerns” for Mr. Tanzler “so he has the ammo he needs if he wants to take a step back” from the district’s current modelling.

The e-mails also reference five telephone calls between Mr. Haridopolos and Mr. Tanzler in 2013 and 2014.

In 2015, shortly after Mr. Scott started his second term as governor, his administration purged the leadership of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Mr. Cole, then the chief of staff, said Mr. Miklos told him he had to resign or he would be terminated. Mr. Miklos showed Mr. Cole a list of several managers that Mr. Steverson had ordered pushed out the door, Mr. Cole said. Another former employee of the district said he was also shown the same list of names by Mr. Miklos, and told that Mr. Steverson had ordered them axed.

Mr. Cole and all the other managers on the list resigned. Mr. Gross said he and another scientist had also been fired a few months earlier.

After the purge, the water management district reversed itself on the Stronach company’s permit. The district switched to a different method of modelling water levels and ultimately gave Adena permission to pump more than 10.1 million litres a day. Environmentalists’ legal challenges to the decision failed.

“All of us that were pushed out, had a view of how to protect the water resources in that area of Florida. Getting us out paved the way to water policy that was less impactful,” Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Haridopolos, for his part, was hired as a subcontractor for the water district on a different project in late 2015, e-mails say, at the same time as he was still working for the Stronach Group.

Correspondence between Mr. Haridopolos, district officials and Jon Armbruster at Taylor Engineering indicate that Taylor gave Mr. Haridopolos a US$35,000 contract to serve as a consultant for four months on a St. Johns project for which Taylor was the prime contractor. The project involved dredging the Eau Gallie River. Mr. Haridopolos’s role was to negotiate with the Florida East Coast railroad, which owns a bridge spanning the river, on running a pipe containing the dredged material under the bridge.

Teresa Monson, a spokeswoman for the St. Johns Water Management District, said the agency’s executive director, Ann Shortelle, was “unavailable” for an interview. Mr. Miklos, the former board chair, also declined The Globe’s request for comment through Ms. Monson.

Mr. Valenstein and Mr. Steverson did not respond to The Globe’s questions. Neither did Mr. Scott, now a U.S. senator and potential 2024 presidential candidate; Mr. Putnam, now chief executive officer of the conservationist group Ducks Unlimited; or Thad Altman, the state legislator who sponsored the slaughterhouse tax break.

Today, the Adena golf course is tied up in litigation. During a long legal battle between Frank and Belinda Stronach for control of the empire, Ms. Stronach shut the course down and arranged to sell it off. After the Stronachs settled their dispute last year, a Canadian court ordered the sale not to go ahead. The buyers have sued in a bid to complete the purchase.

When The Globe visited earlier this year, the course’s Spanish-style buildings, faced in white stucco and topped with red clay roof tiles, sat stately in the heat. But the fairways were unkempt and there were no signs of life on the property.

Far busier was Silver Springs, where the glass-bottomed boats were full of sightseers. Below them in the depths were visible reminders of the state’s explosive population growth. Extensive algae coated the walls of the caverns, the consequence of runoff from expanding human habitation, industry and agriculture.

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3 Comments

  1. An outsider watching all this might conclude that corruption is legal in Florida and who’s to say they are wrong?

    At the very least, corruption is business as usual here and its core starts at top of government and spreads outward from there.

    Trouble is most floridians seem to like it this way and the minority isn’t strong enough to do anything about it.

    But Florida isn’t really that different from most other states and our federal government is just as bad. If it wasn’t corrupt as well, a good number of Florida’s Legislators and our current and past Governors would be in jail.

  2. It appears that Florida has more charlatans, rascals, rogues and politicians that fit snuggly into the pockets of the developers and corporations that put money in their campaign coffers, than it has citizens with the political will to save our state’s unique environment and precious waters that are actually the reason people vacation and move here. Florida also has too many people with part-time brains that don’t think the same way year-round brains think. Florida is a playground for part-timers whose houses aren’t homes but rather real estate, winter vacation homes. Their loyalties are elsewhere in their northern permanent residences. s

    1. Linda Sechrist – I appreciate and applaud your comment and would only add that those part-time Florida residents with part-time brains you so aptly describe have the same part-time residence and part-time brain-power in their northern summer “homes.” They have little to no environmental consciousness in the northern homes either. The actions of Nestle “North American Waters” now called Blue Triton after the multi-billion dollar sale by Nestle to a private equity global corporation doing the same kind of horrific water-taking from Michigan waters, putting the water into plastic bottles and selling the water back to those part-time brains and their similars around the country and world – the outrageous number of gallons per minute taken by the water-profiteers from Michigan’s waters doesn’t even raise an eyebrow to those part-time residents. Further eroding any sense of “home” is the growing trend of making their “homes” Air BnB “motels.” They also have little to no signs of caring about the horrific Line 5 pipeline owned by Canadian pipeline behemoth that runs under the Straits of Mackinac, endangering the Great Lakes – that magnificent and precious freshwater body. Enbridge already had a huge spill that affected the Kalamazoo River and tributaries, a spill second only to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf.

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