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Will political bullies decide water policy in Florida?

Maybe you thought the state's water management districts had been picked on as much as possible, that they had been left so broke and powerless they were no longer worth anyone's trouble.

After all, the Legislature had already slashed the districts' budgets, and Gov. Rick Scott had stocked the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District with politically beholden folks — including two former members of his transition team — and then stood by as Swiftmud's basin boards were dismantled.

But it turned out all this was just a warm-up for the real bullying.

Later this week, the state Senate is expected to take up a piece of legislation (SB 1986) that will restructure the way the districts' budgets are set and, along the way, undermine the founding principle behind the formation of a statewide network of districts 40 years ago.

Water management wasn't centralized, said former Department of Environmental Regulation (now Environmental Protection) Secretary Vicki Tschinkel, because state leaders at the time believed local representatives would have the most knowledge about their region's water supply and the most interest in protecting it. Governing board members weren't elected so they could be spared from direct political influence.

This bill, on the other hand, gives direct control for every line item in the districts' budgets to the governor and Legislature. And to see how this also means control of policy, consider what this bill says about regulation — that it should no longer be one of the districts' core missions, but a fringe duty funded separately by the Legislature.

So what happens if a district tries to make a powerful industry or landowner follow its rules? It can be punished, of course, and punished in a way that lets it know exactly what it's being punished for.

Expect lots of empty desks in the districts' regulatory offices, said Tschinkel — who has studied this issue for the bipartisan Florida Conservation Coalition — and a distinct chill for anyone who thinks seriously about protecting lakes, rivers and the aquifer.

What other duties would no longer be among the districts' central mission if the bill becomes law? Buying and restoring natural lands. Of course.

Also outreach, which doesn't sound like such a bad thing until you consider that this has always included trying to teach Florida residents that they can easily use less water.

And instead of that very cost-effective way to ensure water is available for future growth, the Senate bill opts for a much more expensive method: "water supply, including alternative water supply, and water resource development projects."

That might include potentially beneficial but very costly projects such as desalination plants. Or it might mean pumping water from places where it is relatively plentiful, such as northern Hernando County, to places where it isn't, including most of Central Florida.

It definitely means there will be a scramble among lawmakers to get their legislative districts' share — or more than their share — of projects and water. And it means the distribution of these resources won't be determined by the needs of residents or the environment, but by political muscle.

So it's no surprise that this bill was diverted from one Senate committee that might have voted it down and instead appeared and quickly passed through the Appropriations Committee headed by JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

We can't say for sure that this bill will allow Alexander to bring home an expensive pipeline project that his district needs for future development. After all, this is his last session.

But you know his most publicized pet project, the independent university he wants for his district, and how the battle over it has been ugly and messy and contrary to the interests of just about everyone involved?

Well, if this bill passes, setting water policy in Florida could look lot like that.

Will political bullies decide water policy in Florida? 02/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 6:37pm]
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