Daily Commercial

December 3, 2013

A big shift in water districts

By Chris Curry


As springs across the region struggle with declining flow and rising pollution, environmental activists worry that they have no strong voice left on the water management district boards charged with protecting the state’s springs, rivers, lakes and aquifer.

Groups such as the Florida Conservation Coalition, a partnership of several statewide environmental organizations, say they lost their last advocate in May, when Gov. Rick Scott decided not to reappoint Richard Hamann — a water and environmental law expert at the University of Florida and past president of the Florida Defenders of the Environment — to a second term on the board of the St. Johns River Water Management District.

Environmentalists say the state’s five water management district boards are now stacked with representatives of industry and business and lack members with a primary focus on environmental protection.

They argue that the makeup of the water boards, along with the budget-slashing of Scott’s first year in office and Tallahassee’s ongoing process to “streamline” water withdrawal permitting across the state, combine to hamper springs protection efforts and weaken the water management districts.

Today, the composition of the district boards leans far more heavily toward business than 10 to 15 years ago, says Pat Harden, the vice president of the Howard T. Odum Springs Institute.

A member of the St. Johns board in the 1990s, Harden would be a rarity today — an environmental activist serving on a water management board.

A founding member of the environmental group Friends of the Wekiva River, which formed in the midst of Florida’s growth boom to advocate for the protection of the river, Harden served on the St. Johns board from 1991 to 1999, including time as chair.

I think we had a more balanced board between people who worried about the environment and conservation and business and professionals,” Harden, now a Gainesville resident, said. The state Department of Environmental Protection “had oversight, but they let the boards do their work because the boards, by and large, had the staff with the expertise, and they knew the area.”

The tilt toward business interests has picked up steam under Gov. Rick Scott, whose term has included new directors of all five water management districts and major staff changes in the leadership of the DEP, environmentalists say.

Water management district officials say that, whether they are affiliated with an environmental group or not, board members take protection of the resource seriously.

When you speak to our board members, you will find that, while they are businessmen and women, they are good stewards of the environment. … I think that just because someone is not president of an environmental group, it does not mean they are not an environmental steward,” Suwannee River Water Management District Executive Director Ann Shortelle said.

Hamann was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009. In May 2011, he was the lone board member of the St. Johns board to vote against a 20-year permit for Jacksonville’s utility that consolidated more than two dozen existing permits and eventually could allow groundwater pumping of as much as 162.5 million gallons per day.

That permit was approved over concerns that groundwater pumping in the Jacksonville area had contributed to historically low levels on the lakes in the Keystone Heights area as well as lower aquifer levels and river and spring flows in the Suwannee district’s jurisdiction.

Hamann, a faculty member at the Levin College of Law Center for Government Responsibility, said even when he was not on the prevailing side of a vote, it was important to have the environmentalists’ point of view represented on the board.

I think there has been more representation from an environmental perspective in the past,” he said. “Even if you do not have a majority, I think it is good to have a voice in the discussions — and that is now lacking.”

In May, Scott gave Hamann’s seat to Douglas Burnett, a consultant to defense contractors, retired major general with the Florida National Guard and a former commercial airline pilot.

Other members of the St. Johns board include the president of an Orlando environmental consulting firm for developers, the president of a transportation and civil engineering firm, a citrus industry representative, the president of a defense contractor consulting firm, the past president of a Jacksonville manufacturing industry association and executives with forestry and environmental engineering consulting firms.

Marion County’s representative is Ocala attorney Fred Roberts Jr.

The Suwannee board includes a cattle rancher, farmers, a road builder, a real estate appraiser for an agricultural credit union, an engineer and land surveyor, an attorney and an accountant.

Roberts, an Ocala native, said the St. Johns board reflects a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints.

I feel we have a relatively diverse group from several different disciplines,” he said. “Me personally, I am a sixth-generation Floridian, and I certainly recognize first and foremost that water is a scarce resource that has to be protected. I grew up in Florida. I want to see my children grow up in Florida. I hope to see my grandchildren grow up in Florida.

It is critical that we protect such a valuable resource. But there must be a balance between protecting that resource and making good use of that resource,” he said.

Merillee Malwitz-Jipson, president of the environmental group Our Santa Fe River, said what is lacking now on the Suwannee board is an advocate who will say no to new permits to pump water as springs struggle with declining flow and rising pollution.

I think it’s heavily stacked toward agriculture and business,” Malwitz-Jipson said of the Suwannee board. “They say we can’t stop issuing permits because it’s going to stop growth.”

That argument to turn down permits until more work was done setting minimum flows also was made by the environmental group Save Our Suwannee and member of the Bradford Soil and Water Conservation District in late 2011, when the Suwannee board unanimously approved a series of groundwater pumping permits for dairy farms that totaled about 5.5 million gallons per day.

Still, an ongoing situation in the St. Johns district has stirred up some skepticism about the effect minimum flows will have on permitting and pumping.

In the Keystone Heights area, drying Lake Geneva, Lake Brooklyn and Cowpen Lake are all below adopted minium flows and levels, and the St. Johns district is moving toward lowering the adopted levels, a process that’s not yet final.

University of Florida political science assistant professor Katrina Schwartz, who teaches a course in the politics of water, said that while the state DEP always had oversight over the water management districts, Tallahassee has been more “heavy-handed” in recent years.

In his first budget cycle after election, Scott slashed water management district budgets by a combined $700 million in 2011, leading to hundreds of layoffs.

Some of the rule changes during his tenure largely restrict water management districts from reducing allowable permitted water withdrawal levels on a permit because of changes in the economy or population growth rates. After the last legislative session, Scott signed into law a measure forbidding districts from reducing groundwater pumping of a utility that builds a desalination plant.

The state is in the process of putting in place uniform criteria that all water management districts must follow when considering applications for consumptive-use permits.

In written comments on that measure, the Florida Conservation Coalition said consistency in permitting is fine — if the goal is to avoid the least-protective conditions attached to permits across the state.

Drew Bartlett, the DEP deputy secretary for Water Policy and Ecosystem Restoration, said the goal is to bring consistency across the districts with the same forms and procedures used in permitting.

Bartlett pointed to progress in establishing minimum flows of levels for the Lower Santa Fe, the Ichetucknee and primary springs in that area.

He said once those are in place, there will be a new regulatory framework and a higher bar for issuing new permits or extending permits that impact the water bodies.

He pointed to the DEP working with the Suwannee and St. Johns districts to work more closely on water supply planning in acknowledgement of the fact that groundwater pumping in one district affects aquifer levels in the other.

Bartlett, along with St. Johns and Suwannee district officials, pointed to the millions of dollars the state and districts pumped into springs restoration projects this ye ar and the additional money expected next budget year.

Shortelle said the Suwannee district is dipping into about $3 million a year in reserves to fund retrofits and other cost-share efforts that have agriculture, the main business and water user in the district, pumping less.

She said metering requirements are on the way to find out how much water agribusiness is actually pumping, and the district has its first full-time water conservation specialist.

The results to this point are an estimated 10 million gallons per day in groundwater pumping. By comparison, permitted agricultural groundwater pumping in the district totals 348.11 million gallons per day.

Casey Fitzgerald, the head of the St. Johns district’s springs protection initiative, said a cost-share program put more than $46 million toward springs restoration projects this year. The state put in $9.3 million; the district funded $8.1 million; and local governments picked up the majority at more than $28 million. The projects included wastewater plant upgrades in Marion County to reduce the flow of nitrates into Silver Springs. Fitzgerald said that next year, the district’s funding is expected to rise to $14 million.

It’s a pretty large elephant that’s going to take a lot of bites to consume, but we are starting to eat that elephant,” Fitzgerald said.

Still, funding is an issue. Fitzgerald said that, districtwide, 33 potential projects met the criteria for funding, while money was available for 22 of them.

Indeed, the water management districts had requested a combined $122 million for springs protection projects, the Tampa Bay Times reported in January.

State Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the water management districts do not have the funding or enforcement tools needed to make significant strides in saving the springs. Round after round of scientific studies, he said, were just delaying the necessary actions with “analysis paralysis.”

Simmons has drafted but not filed a bill that would identify 21 “outstanding” Florida springs that the state and water management districts have to protect. The bill, in its first draft, would tie not just water quantity but water quality to consumptive-use permitting. Districts could not issue new permits that reduce the flow of a spring or affect a spring polluted by nitrates. Tougher fertilizer regulations and wastewater treatment plant upgrades would be required. On lots one acre or smaller, homes on septic would, at no cost to a residential homeowner, have to hook up to municipal sewage.

The first draft of Simmons’ bill was circulated for comments and received a letter of objection signed by 30 organizations over costs and other issues. The organizations included the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers Association of Florida and the Florida Rural Water Association.

Simmons said a second draft is being prepared.

If we don’t do it now, I think we will be so far behind, it will be many generations before we catch up, and it will be a lot of economic pain on all of us,” Simmons said.

People come to Florida because of our pristine water. And if someone would suggest to you we are not degrading that water now, I would suggest that person needs a reality check.”