Politics Predominates in our Water Management Disricts

Water management (or lack thereof) is in the news again today, as the Gainesville Sun writes about the tight control Tallahassee has over the way our water resources are  monitored.  Nathan Crabbe’s editorial “Averting a Water Crisis” follows:Scroll

Under Gov. Rick Scott, the state’s water management districts have seen their budgets slashed, senior staff ousted and more control taken in Tallahassee.

Environmental advocates fear springs and other water resources will suffer further as politics prevail over science in permitting decisions. Noah Valenstein, the new executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, paints a different picture: He said challenges remain, but changes in recent years have averted a full-blown water crisis.

“The only crisis was before the last five years or so,” Valenstein said during an editorial board meeting last week with The Sun. “You didn’t have that focus or investment on setting these levels and providing that funding for projects there is today.”

MMJ-Valenstein working
OSFR Policy Director Malwitz-Jipson with SRWMD Executive Director Valenstein

Valenstein was referring to minimum flows and levels set for the lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers and state funding provided to springs restoration projects. He fails to acknowledge that the spending and regulations have facilitated some of the same activities that depleted and polluted the aquifer and springs in the first place.

As former environmental policy coordinator for Scott, it’s not surprising that Valenstein puts a rosy glow on the governor’s environmental record. After all, Valenstein’s resume touted that the position meant he oversaw budgets and policy decisions for the water districts as well as other state agencies tasked with protecting the environment.

The state certainly permitted excessive groundwater pumping and pollution long before Scott took office. Yet rather than reverse that trend, the governor has given regulators fewer resources and more reason to fear retribution if they deny permits.

An Oct. 10 story in The Sun outlined how Scott started slashing the district budgets in his first year in office. Layoffs followed that included senior staff ousted with little explanation. Former Scott administration officials are now the executive directors at four of the state’s five water management districts.

“Right now, Tallahassee is in such tight control,” Sonny Vergara, former director of the St. Johns and Southwest Florida water management districts, told The Sun. “Scott took away the institutional memory at the major scientific and leadership positions, the ultimate result of which is to change the very culture of the water management districts from science-based to purely political.”

Scott should be given credit for approving more springs spending, but that spending has too often amounted to corporate welfare without accountability. The administration has been all carrot and no stick, encouraging voluntary best practices and subsidizing those responsible for the problem without requiring them to change their practices.

Minimum flows and levels for the lower Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers are another example of this flawed approach. Rather than putting the brakes on groundwater withdrawals already found to have harmed those rivers, existing permits were grandfathered in until a new computer model is completed in 2019.

In his meeting with The Sun, Valenstein credited these changes as helping protect water resources but acknowledged challenges remain. As a graduate of Gainesville’s Buchholz High School and the University of Florida, he suggested his own experiences enjoying the region’s springs have installed in him a passion for protecting them.

Given that he’s officially been the Suwannee district director for less than a month, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But if Valenstein really wants to avert a water crisis, he must be willing to make decisions at the district level to protect springs and the aquifer that won’t be popular in Tallahassee.

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