My Palm Beach Post

Sept. 6, 2016


Editorial: Water district wields heavy hand against Audubon


There appears to be a new atmosphere at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and not a good one. The agency charged with environmental restoration, water supply and flood protection in 16 counties is taking a jarringly adversarial tone that smacks of a political war room.

Recently, the agency lashed out at the head of Audubon of Florida, who had the gall to suggest that the district use its own, ample reserves rather than insist that the federal government pay for the removal of invasive plant species that are seriously eroding the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the only remnant of the northern Everglades in Palm Beach County.

When Eric Draper, Audubon’s executive director, urged the water management district board at an August meeting to dip into its own funds, even if it meant abandoning a planned rollback of the property tax millage rate, the agency responded with a full-throated email blast: “Audubon wants to raise your taxes to pay for the federal government’s failure to control invasive plants …”

Oh, please. Holding taxes at the same rate is not the same as raising taxes. And the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the state-owned refuge, is not primarily responsible for a condition that is overtaking the tree islands; no more than a tenant is responsible for fixing the apartment building roof after a hurricane.

And why, above all, demonize Audubon, classic do-gooders whose only interest is in an environment healthy enough to sustain a plenitude of bird species?

This heavy-handed behavior is symptomatic of SFWMD now that Gov. Rick Scott has eviscerated the agency of many of its scientists and technicians, and packed the board with appointees who share his Tea Party-ish views on lowering taxes and shrinking government. Last year, his administration’s former attorney, Pete Antonacci, was named executive director.

After the district released the “Audubon wants to raise your taxes” mass email, Lisa Interlandi, attorney for the Everglades Law Center, made a Sunshine Law request for that email’s recipients, looking to respond. The water management district took the unusual step of sending another email to those 5,000 people on its electronic email list. This time, it warned of a “potential invasion of privacy” from Interlandi.

District spokesman Randy Smith told the Post Editorial Board that the agency was merely offering a consumer caution to those on the list. But to Interlandi — and to us — it looks like an attempt to isolate critics and chill dissenting opinion. That’s not the way a taxpayer-funded agency should operate.

“In 18 years, I’ve never seen an agency act like this,” says Interlandi. “In the past several months, this agency has sunk to new lows, publicly attacking scientists, individuals, environmental groups and government agencies involved in restoration efforts.”

As the recent toxic algae bloom crisis shows, there is nothing easy about fixing the water problems so vexing, and so crucial, to this state. To do it properly will take gobs of money, and the cooperation of all sorts of competing interests.

That task gets infinitely harder if the state agency in charge makes enemies of stakeholders who are clearly devoted to the public interest.