The following article in TC Palm may sound incredible, but it is nothing new. Florida is one of the most corrupt states in the nation, but we still feel outrage when we read articles such as this one.
Neither is criticism of the water management districts new, as the chair of the St Johns River Water Management District has been accused of corruption in several newspaper reports, for profiting in his private business through his position on the water board.
During the recent Minimum Flows and Levels hearings in SWFWMD, their scientists have been accused of intellectual dishonesty by other respected water scientists. The accusers had documentation to back up their statements, but they were ignored so that water users could take their free water.
Yes, unfortunately, in Florida, when industry wants water, it usually gets it.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Eve Samples: Who does SFWMD really work for — lobbyists or taxpayers?
Serving 8.1 million residents and millions of visitors in 16 counties, the South Florida Water Management District does just what its name implies: control water. That means providing flood control when there’s too much water, drinking supplies when there’s not enough and restoring as much of the area’s natural water systems as having all those residents and visitors will allow.
I got a letter in the mail the other day outlining my proposed property taxes. I’m sure many of you did, too.
If things go as planned, I’ll pay about $45 to the South Florida Water Management District for the upcoming budget year.
I’ve got no problem forking over the money for the district’s core missions:
- Flood protection across 16 counties from Orlando to the Florida Keys
- Protecting water supply for 8.1 million people
- Improving water quality by working to eliminate pollutants
- Leading environmental restoration (including Everglades) projects
In fact, I’d be willing to pay more if it meant cleaner water for the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River, which last year endured pollution-fueled toxic algae blooms.
But here’s what I’ve got a problem with: Paying taxes to a district controlled by industry cronies who prioritize special interests over everyday people.
We’ve got two examples of the district’s dismissive attitude from the past week alone.
The first came Monday, when TCPalm reporter Tyler Treadway emailed staff at the South Florida Water Management District to ask what would happen if our region was ever deluged by as much rain as Hurricane Harvey dumped on Texas over the past week.
It was a legitimate question for a district tasked with flood control for one of the most populous areas of the country (in a state that was built on a swamp, no less).
The district totally blew it off.
“Speculation and the hypothetical for a comparison does not serve any practical purpose and may lead to unnecessary fear mongering,” replied Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.
In 2014, South Florida water managers were on the verge of an agriculture pollution crackdown, but at the last minute reversed course. TCPalm obtained emails that show how a lobbyist influenced water policy. LUCAS DAPRILE/TCPALM Wochit
The second, more glaring example, is detailed in TCPalm reporter Lucas Daprile’s investigation into how a U.S. Sugar Corp. lobbyist was allowed to dictate revisions to a South Florida Water Management District annual report. The changes led to toothless water-quality regulations that take polluters at their word rather than setting enforceable limits.
Daprile pored through hundreds of district emails and found district staff changed course on its 2015 annual summary of scientific research and pollution cleanup plans, when U.S. Sugar lobbyist Irene Quincey stepped into the picture.
Her edits to the document led to deletion of the word “enforceable” from three places where the district cited its authority to regulate phosphorus pollution in the Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River basins.
Her involvement also led to deletion of all references to a $650,000 district study that used data from water monitoring sensors to identify areas around Lake Okeechobee that weren’t cutting phosphorus pollution enough to meet state limits.
U.S. Sugar’s meddling even led to a proposed “guillotine list” of words for future reports, purportedly to avoid “public outcry.”
Oh, and all of this input came after the public comment period had ended.
As Daprile reported:
“Before and during the public comment period, other agricultural interests had pushed for the same regulations Quincey did privately, but the district hadn’t acted on their input.”
But don’t blame lower-level district staff. They appear to be the messengers.
Len Lindahl, who was then deputy administrator of the water district, asked Quincey for a “list of edits” at a meeting that included a “Southern style lunch” and skeet shooting, emails show.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The investigative story — which I recommend reading in its entirety, including the annotated emails — is a reminder of the outsized power U.S. Sugar wields over the water agency.
Meanwhile, everyday taxpayers are left holding the bag.
What can we do about it?
Well, the South Florida Water Management District is controlled by a nine-member Governing Board. Its members are appointed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Despite a lot of talk in Tallahassee about making taxing agencies accountable to voters, the state’s water management districts remain appointed by the governor.
State Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, repeatedly has said he philosophically believes voters should have power over any agency with taxing authority. It’s why he crusaded to force the state’s Children’s Services Councils to get reauthorized by voters — but he has yet to turn his efforts to the water districts.
“I happen to believe that board members of taxing districts should be elected. That’s my personal view,” Negron said in an interview with Daprile last year.
If you’re not happy with the status quo at the district, I encourage you to email Negron to let him know you support that idea. His email address is [email protected] and his district office phone number is 772-219-1665.
You also can contact Dan O’Keefe, governing board chair for the South Florida Water Management District, at [email protected] or 561-682-6262.
Finally, let Scott know what you think about this. He’s had strong feelings about the state’s water district operations since taking office, forcing dramatic tax cuts and staff reductions. But he doesn’t appear to have a problem with the sugar industry’s influence there. The governor’s phone number is 850-488-7146 and his email is [email protected].
Eve Samples is opinion and audience engagement editor for Treasure Coast Newspapers. Contact her at 772-221-4217 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @EveSamples.