November 17, 2013
By Kevin Spear
Emilio "Sonny" Vergara, 71, is a former director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, which takes in Orlando, and the district covering Tampa Bay. A Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, Vergara regularly takes aim in his blog, http://swfwmdmatters.blogspot.com, at state officials for weakening environmental protections. He recently spoke with Orlando Sentinel writer Kevin Spear.
CFB: Gov. Rick Scott's administration slashed budgets of water districts and narrowed their focus. What's that about?
was a mistake the governor is now in the process of trying to repair
in order to get re-elected. Ignorant of the impact of his actions and
pandering to right-wing sympathies and special interests, he has
gloated over his reducing government and taxes. But he badly
underestimated the complexities and cost of effectively managing the
state's natural environment to protect and sustain what's left of it.
He is now tossing state and federal dollars at problems he first
discounted, like the Everglades-Lake Okeechobee fiasco, the polluting
of the state's iconic springs and the growing fear that there is not
enough cheap groundwater to support growth.
CFB: How have environmental protections been weakened?
has directed hundreds of talented resource-management scientists to
be summarily fired. Critical institutional knowledge has been lost.
The districts can no longer raise enough funds to do what's needed
because the governor and legislature placed unreasonable limits on
their constitutional-based authority to levy an ad valorem tax. In
addition to cutting the state's environmental muscle, it has weakened
its tools. The state's entire body of environmental rules is being
reviewed to accommodate special interests.
CFB: Who are the winners and what have they gained?
interests, lobbyists and the politicians who serve them are the
winners. They have gained a free hold on the future of the state all
in the interest of greater profits at the public's expense. Any
concern for public interest has become nearly equated to socialist
thinking. Private interests such as big agriculture, mining
companies, power companies, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other
powerful Tallahassee entities have been elevated above the interests
of the public.
CFB: Critics have said the water districts grew arrogant.
This tired complaint is used universally by regulated interests to gain political and popular control of regulators. Regulators are only human and face some of the most powerful interests and legal firepower in the business world. Regulators have to be smart and tough if they are to be effective in their jobs protecting the interests of the public. It is difficult not to be defensive at times, often interpreted as arrogance and uncaring, in the face of the aggressiveness of certain powerful private applicants and their well-paid lawyers. The largest majority of the regulators go out of their way to be courteous.
CFB: If you were governor for a day, what changes would you make?
biggest resource problem facing Florida today and into the future is
obtaining enough sustainable and affordable water to meet the state's
growth demands and still maintain healthy natural ecosystems. The
water districts were founded through the wisdom and shrewdness of
governors and legislators of both parties over the last 50 years to
address these problems on a regional basis. I would take every
measure to return the districts to their original mission along with
the authority and resources to do the job. Then I'd ask for another
day to do more.
CFB: Is it possible to protect the environment of a state with the fourth-largest population?
It'll be an increasingly complex and expensive job, but the state's economic future is at risk. People will not want to visit polluted beaches, fish and swim in slimy lakes and rivers or drink from tainted aquifers. Is it possible to protect and sustain Florida's unique ecology in light of its expected growth? The answer must be yes.