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Guest column | Judy A. Williams

Dismantling water and wetlands management will cost us later

I can't be considered a native Floridian because I wasn't born here, but I have lived in this state since 1959; I can't think of anywhere else to call home. According to a bumper sticker I've seen, I am technically a semi-native. I can't think of another place I'd want to live.

But, what is happening now in the state government regarding growth and water management makes me sick to my stomach. The old Florida I grew up in is mostly long gone.

In the old days, Crackers and anyone with common sense scouted for suitable property in the summertime when the rains were in full swing. This way you could easily see where the water would accumulate and know just where your usable property was located.

Now there are ways that you change a piece of property so that you can build pretty much anywhere you want to. You can fill in a wetland, put in a drainage retention pond, and buy a wetland miles away from the property to make up for what you destroyed. It requires surface water permitting, but it can be done.

Wetlands were once called swamps and were considered worthless. They aren't worthless after all. Not only do wetlands provide habitat for many species of wildlife and plants, but they can do a heck of a job treating and cleaning up stormwater runoff. Even the Army Corps of Engineers, not exactly known for their environmental sensitivity, noted at least 30 years ago that the cheapest form of stormwater drainage was wetland protection.

Meanwhile, the water management districts apparently can't buy property to save what is left of our fragile ecosystems and I have a feeling that it is only a matter of time before existing public lands are inventoried and sold to the highest bidder.

If we can simply preserve the natural ecosystems, we will end up saving money in the long run. Seems logical, but it does require long-range planning and common sense. It appears that Gov. Rick Scott and his Republican friends in the state Legislature have neither the common sense nor the respect for Florida to do much long-range planning.

I have lived in the Tampa Bay area since about 1977 and have seen unplanned development around here that is just not economically or environmentally sustainable. I have never believed that all growth is bad, but I do believe that all future development should be environmentally and economically sustainable. I believe that most Floridians feel the same way.

It really doesn't matter to me who builds it, but it is foolish to think that building just for the sake of building is going to make Florida more desirable in the long run. Leapfrog development ends up being very costly to the existing taxpayers.

We already have an excess of permitted development in Florida, so why does the governor want to make it easier to build? How in the world can he explain that building more homes will help alleviate the foreclosed properties, short sales and existing homes currently on the market? How is that move going to create sustainable jobs?

I am also convinced he wants to dismantle water management districts. He already did away with the Southwest Florida Water Management District's basin boards and the folks on those basin boards volunteered their time, but were educated on the water issues particular to their own watersheds.

Not many people remember that Florida's water management districts, specifically Swiftmud, were originally created in 1961 to control flooding. Since then, the responsibilities have grown to include water use permitting. In essence, the district serves as the managers of our state's water supply. It also is charged with protecting the natural systems and the needs of Florida's fragile environment that serve important water-related functions. People tend to forget that it is the district's responsibility to protect water quality, as well.

The district issues water use permits to ensure withdrawals from water bodies will not harm existing users, the water resources or the environment. The district also contributes funding and technical expertise to local governments for programs that conserve water and develop alternative water supplies. In other words, they put taxpayers' money into furthering these objectives.

I know why builders don't like the water management districts and detest having to go through the permitting process. But both the districts and the permitting process are essential to preserving what makes Florida attractive to both citizens and tourists alike.

Judy A. Williams of Land O'Lakes spent 15 years as a water activist raising public awareness of the environmental damage of excessive groundwater withdrawals. In 1998, she received a published apology from Pinellas County, which had sued Williams and other activists in what is commonly called a SLAPP — strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such lawsuits from local governments are now illegal in Florida.

Dismantling water and wetlands management will cost us later 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 11:46am]
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