Who’s Guarding Your Water Supply?

By the time St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon stepped to the podium at the Sept. 13 meeting of the St. Johns River Water Management District board, he’d sat through six hours of meetings. And something struck him. In all that time — during discussions of how to reduce regulations on business, avoid litigating with polluters and streamline wetland destruction permits — he hadn’t heard anyone mention the St. Johns River. The three words hadn’t been uttered one single time.

“Honestly,” says Armingeon, “I felt like I was sitting there watching life as we know it unravel.”

Although Armingeon has long complained about the Water Management District’s pro-business, utility-friendly bias, even that lackluster protection of local water resources is history. The agency’s budget — like that of the state’s four other water management districts — has been ordered slashed by Gov. Rick Scott. The local district was required to cut its budget by 25 percent, or about $46 million. To accomplish that, the agency slashed about 18 percent of its staff. The cuts will save the owner of a homesteaded house valued at $200,000 about $15 a year.

The flipside of the modest savings is the decimation of the district. A total of 127 of the district’s 718 jobs have been eliminated as of Oct. 1, according to spokesperson Teresa Monson. And while many cuts have been accomplished through attrition and voluntary departures, some 94 of them were the result of layoffs. Those asked to leave included key people like Jeff Elledge, a 31-year employee, and similarly long-tenured staffers Marc Minno and Glenn Love — all of whom worked in the highly political wetlands permitting division.

District CEO Kirby Green is also on his way out, along with the executive directors of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the South Florida Water Management District. But Green ’s retirement cannot come a minute to soon to satisfy board members. Even after he moved his original retirement date up from February 2012 to Oct. 3, board members were showing him the door. At the September meeting, Gov. Scott appointee Chuck Drake, whose consulting business helps companies secure large water-use permits, asked, “Why is Kirby still here?”

The net effect of the firings and cutbacks is impossible to ignore. When it came time for board members’ comments, Governing Board Member Richard Hamann said that the district was being “decimated.” Hamann, an associate professor of law at the Center for Governmental Responsibility at University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, says the agency had no choice but to respond to Scott’s demand for cuts. Those budget decreases, however, became an opportunity for political payback.

“It seems to me there were people who were involved with permit issues, with Consumptive Use Permits [for water], or with Developments of Regional Impact, or other contentious scientific issues like the impacts on wetlands, who were removed,” he says. “They were targeted.”

Hamann suspects the cuts were ordered, either by fellow board members or the Governor’s Office. “Somebody like that asked for these cuts,” he says. “These are not people who were not doing a good job. These are not people who were let go for budget reasons. My only conclusion is that these people [were] fired because they were doing their jobs.”

The Water Management District board has never been free of political influence, of course. All board members are gubernatorial appointees who must be approved by the senate. Hamann, a Crist appointee, has a background in water planning and environmental law, but the rest of the board is made up of representatives of polluting industries and heavy water users, including a citrus farmer, a forestry consultant, a bio-tech firm, a civil engineer and Jacksonville’s own Lad Daniels, former head of the industry lobbyist group First Coast Manufacturers Association.

Hamann believes the cuts — and their political underpinnings — severely undermine the capacity of the Water Management District to do its task of protecting the water resources of the St. Johns River basin.

The state’s five water districts were established in 1975 to conserve sensitive wetlands, issue water-use permits and safeguard water resources into the future. But its powers (to say nothing of its budget) were severely constrained by a memo this year from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which said that any major decisions must go through the state for approval. Gov. Scott’s first executive order stopped any pending regulation in its tracks. And some 150 regulations already imposed by the Water Management District will have to be reviewed by DEP.

“Everything is being funneled to the governor’s office,” says Hamann. “I am extremely concerned, and I think it is time to speak about it. I think we are in a bad situation.”

It’s not an entirely new situation to those in the fight for clean water. Observes Armingeon, “We are in the place we were in when we started. We have the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act because that was when rivers [like the Cuyahoga in Ohio] were burning.”

Asked if Florida’s water resources are that much imperiled, Hamann pulls no punches.

“What is at risk?” he asks. “I don’t think the Water Management District can pledge to the public that it can protect their interests in our water sources.”

He adds, almost without needing to, “I wouldn’t be saying this if I wasn’t extremely concerned.”

Susan Cooper E

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