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State environmental chief, Gov. Rick Scott shaking up water management districts

Six months ago, Gov. Rick Scott's newly appointed Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Herschel Vinyard, sat down for lunch at Tallahassee's Governor's Club with four of his predecessors. They offered to answer any questions about the job.

Vinyard, a Jacksonville shipbuilding executive, made it clear he didn't know much about the state's environmental agency, but he did have one thing on his mind: the state's water management districts, which are nominally under the DEP but have long functioned independently of Tallahassee.

"He talked about the water districts, that that was something he wanted to take a hard look at," recalled Jake Varn, who served as the state's top environmental regulator from 1979 to 1981 under then-Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat.

"It was his first week in Tallahassee, and he was talking about all their money and their taxing authority," agreed Victoria Tschinkel, who headed the environmental agency for the remaining six years of Graham's term.

Now Scott and Vinyard have shaken up the water districts — cutting millions from their budgets, capping executive salaries, pushing for layoffs and freezing land buying — and Scott says that's only his first step.

The goal seems clear to Tschinkel: "The governor wants control over the water supply in Florida."

Actually, according to Scott press secretary Lane Wright, "Gov. Scott's goal is to make sure water management districts stick to the core mission with which they were created — plain and simple."

But when asked specifically whether Scott thinks the best way to do that is by centralizing control of water management decisions, Wright replied, "I'm not even sure what that means." He did not respond to followup questions.

Vinyard, 47, acknowledges his keen interest in the districts, but says there is no move afoot to create a water czar for Florida, dictating who gets how much water and when.

"Early on, I was very focused on water and water policy, because water is so important to the state's future," he said. "I view the water management districts as key partners in implementing our strategy." As for the czar idea, "I haven't heard that."

The idea of centralizing the state's water supply decisions has been around for years. In 2003 the Council of 100, a group of the state's business leaders, came up with a plan to create a state water commission that could route water from sleepy North Florida to fuel development in South Florida. But the plan proved so controversial that Gov. Jeb Bush scuttled it.

Still, the idea of centralizing water policy decisions is in keeping with what Scott's own transition team called for.

The subcommittee on regulatory reform, led by Tampa water-use lawyer Doug Manson, told Scott "the greatest need right now that will produce the fastest results is to change the culture and the leadership at the DEP and the water management districts" in order to "create an environment of customer service to help citizens and small businesses succeed while ensuring sound growth."

Doing that would require Scott to "create consistent water policy from the governor's office through DEP to each WMD," the transition team wrote. Manson did not respond to a request for comment.

Although the members of each water district governing board are appointed by the governor, they have frequently pursued their own policies and practices. They contend they alone know how to meet the needs of their region, but the lack of uniformity has aggravated developers and others seeking permits.

The oldest is also the largest: the South Florida Water Management District, created in 1949 to oversee the drainage of the Everglades, and now in charge of restoring it.

The one overseeing the Tampa Bay region, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, followed in 1961 after monstrous flooding.

Then in 1972 the Legislature created the rest: the St. Johns River Water Management District, the Suwannee River Water Management District and the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

Their boundaries are not based on county lines but on where surface water runoff goes. Each has the power to levy property taxes to finance water supply projects — such as Tampa Bay Water's reservoir and desalination plant — and protecting land important to maintaining a clean water supply. Each one is also in charge of issuing permits for tapping into the aquifer and altering wetlands.

Scott is not the first governor to try to get the water districts singing from the same hymnal, noted Colleen Castille, who headed the DEP under Gov. Bush. She held quarterly meetings with the executive directors of the five districts to discuss policy issues and "try to get a consensus."

But the districts, by virtue of their taxing authority and their access to local legislators, could usually thwart any attempt by a governor or DEP secretary to make them do something they didn't want to, Varn said.

So when Vinyard mentioned the water districts to his predecessors, Varn said, "we told him they're a force to be reckoned with. They've got more money than God, they pay their staff better and if you get a good person working at DEP, they can hire them away."

But now Scott and the Legislature have forced the districts to slash their tax rates and budgets, forcing the layoff of hundreds of employees, including some senior Everglades experts at the South Florida district. But Vinyard insisted that the districts still have plenty of cash for building new water supply projects.

Meanwhile, he's ordered the districts to stop buying environmentally sensitive land until he tells them to start again.

"This is a timeout," Vinyard said, explaining, "I haven't been able to find a written policy on what land we should buy and why." His staff is trying to draw up a policy, which he said may take a while.

All in all, though, Vinyard said he's interested only in saving the taxpayers money through greater efficiency, not seizing control of the water supply. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist," he said.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

State environmental chief, Gov. Rick Scott shaking up water management districts 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 11:55pm]

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