It's hard to fire the truth. SFWMD executive director Pete Antonacci made headlines this week threatening to dismiss the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) from collaborating on Everglades restoration. Why? Because NAS has been telling embarrassing truths since its December report on the project, including the facts that planners grossly underestimated the water storage it needs and grossly overestimates how much can go underground. SFWMD has been peddling a very different story.
It wasn't the district's only struggle with truth this week. Just days after boasting about the purity of water churning out of sugarcane fields, the district’s own data showed phosphorus levels from EAA runoff more than 25 times the standard.
The SFWMD board's sugar industry sponsors are still furious about that standard, imposed by federal overseers in the rare legal loss they couldn’t pay their way out of. And they’re furious that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) monitors the federally mandated work on Everglades restoration. Antonacci's agency was attacking NAS on their behalf.
Of course, it's not Antonacci's agency anymore. Last night the former general counsel to Rick Scott stepped down from SFWMD, reportedly to head Scott's beleaguered Enterprise Florida. Antonacci's sudden departure might offer a lesson to his replacement about how to conduct the war against science and federal oversight and the truths they surface. (Quietly.) But the war continues.
Eye On Miami’s Alan Farago perfectly covered the source of the district’s fury, and its demand to replace the NAS with state-level overseers who can be silenced or fired by Rick Scott if they criticize his appointees. The following is an abridged version of the Eye on Miami article. The full text (here) is worth reading.
Independent Science Under Attack by the State of Florida
By Alan Farago
When it comes to using independent science to affirm what is happening in the real world, the State of Florida is abdicating its responsibility.
The direction comes from the top. One of Rick Scott's first acts as governor was to slash the science budget of the state agency charged with Everglades restoration; the South Florida Water Management District.
Environmentalists had good reason to be alarmed. It had been determined, after decades of litigation in federal court, that more than ten parts per billion of phosphorous, laid out by the ton by Big Sugar in its fertilizer run-off, and the Everglades dies. Firing the scientists is not a route to success.
Decades ago a very public decision by Congress and the State of Florida lead to a massive investment using science to guide Everglades restoration. It was called, at the time, the most comprehensive environmental restoration project on Earth. One Glades activist, Joe Podgor, famously quipped, "Saving the Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet."
Future generations will examine what happened this week. SFWMD executive director Pete Antonacci declared at a public meeting that his agency will no longer work with the NAS—one of the nation's premier scientific organizations—because science advisers there won't "stick to their knitting" on Everglades restoration. His views clearly didn't offend Big Sugar or Rick Scott, even if they cost him his job.
Back in 2000, when the road map for the state federal partnership—costing billions—was established, the involvement of the NAS was the only point where environmentalists held hope for the massive plan to restore the Everglades. (I was chair of Sierra Club's Florida Chapter Everglades Committee at the time.)
In other words, we knew—and decision makers agreed—that the complexity of Everglades restoration needed independent, fact-based assessments of progress; not just to ensure that results were being properly organized but also to be a truth-teller in the case that special interests railroaded billions of taxpayer dollars to line their own pockets while calling the theft something else. Like "progress."
SFWMD’s open hostility toward NAS is a sharp reminder that the disintegration of federal authority for protecting the environment is providing cover for big polluters—who control the levers of government in the states—to throttle independent science. Antonacci had turned the district into an office extension of Big Sugar. His threats were taking aim at fact; a mini-version of the tragedy playing out in the nation's capitol, where another ideologue—Scott Pruitt, head of US EPA—is putting a chainsaw to the budgets of federal scientists.
The Everglades panel of the NAS was a sturdy and extraordinarily important part of the plan to reassure the public that billions would not be wasted or diverted to paper-over the profit motive of wetlands destroyers. The NAS panelists take their responsibilities with extraordinary care, substance and skill. Unlike Florida-centric science programs, where careers can be blown up if agency funders decide they don't like one's shoe size, the independence of the NAS is foundational to the national interest in fact.
Science matters, and in the face of unfathomable transformations we triggered in nature, we need to change course. Will SFWMD now tack back and collaborate with the NAS? Don't bank on it. Sadly, when changing course affects the profit margins of the state's biggest campaign contributors, the State of Florida doesn't have the guts to stand up for what ultimately sustains us all. Only enlightened voters can rectify that injustice.