By Peter Girard
Florida’s water management system is broken. Water management districts are political and dysfunctional. Private interests routinely hoard freshwater, pass flood risks to residential communities, and dump pollution into public waterways.
Led by the biggest and most powerful South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), these organizations answer only to the governor, who is allowed by law to appoint donors and friends to their boards. The result is that water management districts’ leadership, budgets, and policies are controlled by the same users they were designed to regulate.
This is exactly the kind of systematic failure this year’s Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) was created to fix. In a tropical climate whose economy, public health, and environment depends on the fragile balance of freshwater, Florida’s water management districts may be our most important government institutions. Making them democratic and accountable could be the most important contribution the CRC can make to our future.
Because their governing boards are political appointees, the districts have always been prone to capture by the highest bidder; and the sugar industry, with its massive water requirements and equally massive taxpayer subsidies, has no trouble outbidding everyone else. But the industry never openly controlled the SFWMD the way it has under the Scott administration.
During last year’s wet winter, sugarcane fields remained drained for optimal production because storage marshes were monopolized for the industry’s runoff and hundreds of billions of gallons of water were diverted to estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee. Meanwhile thousands of Glades residents watched rising water levels further stress one of the most dangerous dams in America. And still the Everglades and Florida Bay were denied the freshwater flows they need. So was Miami-Dade’s drinking water supply, which needs replenishment to stave off saltwater intrusion. Only the sugar industry escaped lasting damage.
In response experts renewed calls for a decades-old solution, reconnecting Lake Okeechobee to Florida’s River of Grass, undamming the historic flow into the Everglades, and cutting toxic discharges to the coasts. The heart of the solution is a dynamic reservoir in the sugarcane fields south of the lake, letting water pass through to be cleaned and sent south to Florida Bay.
When scientists like Mark Perry, a longtime member of the SFWMD’s Water Resource Advisory Council (WRAC), openly suggested that the district should back the solution, its response was unprecedented: Personal attacks in the media--funded with taxpayer money--which continue to this day. (Perry was also quickly replaced on the WRAC with Nyla Pipes, whose US Sugar-funded advocacy opposes the reservoir.)
Just last week the district, with the Economic Council of Martin County, surprised residents with an impromptu “telephone town hall,” dialing thousands with a dinnertime telemarketing pitch calling Sen. Joe Negron “misguided” for endorsing the reservoir and working on legislation to end toxic discharges.
In December, when the National Academy of Sciences--an independent board of hundreds of prominent scientists, founded by Abraham Lincoln--reported to congress that Everglades restoration would require more reservoir storage than initially projected, and recommended a reassessment of the project and current water management policies, SFWMD accused committee members of pursuing an agenda and called the report “saturated in self-interest.”
When respected hydrologist Dr. Tom Van Lent, himself a former SFWMD scientist, later released findings on the benefit of a dynamic reservoir south of the lake, the district lashed out at his report, called him a fraud, and falsely claimed his data were wrong.
Those same claims were repeated in a nasty direct mail campaign sent to Treasure Coast residents by US Sugar last week, personally targeting Mark Perry and baselessly implying that his work at Florida Oceanographic Society is corrupted by donations from conservationists.
Ironically, the same science that SFWMD now viciously attacks was once championed by its own leadership when US Sugar wanted to sell its land. As former chairman Eric Buermann told reporters in 2010, buying land for a dynamic reservoir south of the lake is essential. “You'll have to construct what I call an artificial kidney, which will store the water, treat the water, and then pump it south."
In that same news report, then-gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott theatrically signed a pledge for Tea Party activist Marianne Moran, vowing not to buy the land. He denounced his opponent, Bill McCollum for supporting the idea: “He's owned by US Sugar. They've given him nearly a million dollars for his campaign and it's disgusting.”
Six months after beating McCollum, Scott appointed Moran’s father, Jim, to the SFWMD governing board, along with four other business-friendly members. With an instant majority, the board scuttled the land buy and dismantled the district’s budget under Scott’s direction. In 2013, after an undisclosed visit to King Ranch, Scott then named the citrus and sugar producer’s VP of Florida Agriculture, Mitch Hutchcraft, to the board. When Executive Director Blake Guillory, an engineer and SFWMD veteran challenged another round of cuts in 2015, the board replaced him with Scott’s general counsel, Pete Antonacci. Meanwhile Scott got over his disgust with US Sugar’s money; since 2014 he’s collected more than $950,000 from the company.
Now SFWMD echoes US Sugar’s positions on every issue, opposing Everglades restoration, lobbying against legislation to stop toxic discharges to the coasts, and blocking efforts to send freshwater to hyper-saline Florida Bay. Coastal economies are crashing, seagrass meadows are dying, fisheries are collapsing, toxic algae has closed beaches and threatened the health of millions, and the drinking water that 8 million people rely on is in jeopardy. And the agency charged with preventing all of this continues to favor the interests of a single, politically connected business over virtually every resident of South Florida.
The CRC can change this with an amendment requiring the governing board of what has become the most important government institution in Florida to be qualified, non-partisan, and publicly elected. This will only become more important as our climate gets more erratic, storms come more often, floods get worse, droughts last longer, and drinking water supplies shrink. Florida’s water management will profoundly impact the lives of millions of people. Failing to fix a system that leaves it in control of political hacks and the sugar industry would be a disaster.