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Tom Swihart

Takeover of Florida water shuts out citizens

Recent state power grabs have overturned four decades of making key water management decisions at the local and regional level in Florida. When the Florida Water Resources Act became law in 1972, the governor and Legislature didn't think that all water wisdom resided in Tallahassee.

Rather, the founders of Florida's modern water management system deliberately created a system of shared water power, somewhat akin to the balance in the U.S. Constitution between the states and the federal government. The governing boards of the regional water districts were given wide discretion to address the water problems of their region but always under the "general supervision" of the state.

With neither the state nor the water management districts having all of the power, the two levels of government sometimes disagreed on the best policy. But, like the relationship between the 50 states and the federal government, it is healthier to have many voices and open disagreement than having one central authority make all major decisions out of the public eye.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature are breaking this long-standing Florida tradition of shared water management power. They are shifting all of the big water decisions to Tallahassee. These decisions will be made behind closed doors in the capital, unlike the decisions made in public meetings by the governing boards of the regional water districts after hearing from local residents.

How have the levers of power shifted to Tallahassee? Start with the power to decide on taxes. During his campaign for governor, Scott did not say he wanted to cut the property tax levy of the water management districts. Nonetheless, right after being inaugurated, he announced his support for a statutory cut in regional water management taxes. An ideologically compatible Legislature soon passed that legislation and threw in additional provisions to give it more power over water management decisions. The Legislature declared that it would specify not just the overall tax levels but even how much the districts would spend on individual programs.

Water power is being centralized in other ways, too. In the Tampa Bay region, Scott refused to appoint members to the subsidiary basin boards that the Southwest Florida Water Management District established the same day as the district itself in 1961. He then successfully pressured Swiftmud to terminate the local boards. That action silenced local voices and makes it easier for all future governors to get their way without having to hear bothersome local opinions.

Only two weeks ago, Scott's Department of Environmental Protection sent a memo to all five water management districts emphasizing that they were to follow state directives. The district governing boards, including Scott's new appointees, appear ready to meekly comply.

It is not as if the water management districts have ever been free to act without substantial oversight. It is a question of balance — how far the governor and Legislature should go in micromanaging regional water management. For example, the governor has long had the power to review and disapprove district budgets. The 2011 Legislature gave itself the very same power to disapprove water management district budgets. The combined result is a confusing duplicative mess, sure to be saturated with politics.

Who is in charge of water management now? The governor? The secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection? Legislative committees that review proposed district budgets? All of them are "in charge," which means that none of them are. Keep in mind, too, that none of these supervising bodies is subject to the government-in-the-sunshine requirements that apply to meetings of the water management districts.

Big cuts to water management district budgets will prevent many Florida water problems from being solved. But over the long run, the centralization of water management power in Tallahassee will do even more harm. Citizens no longer have meaningful access to water management decisionmaking. Tallahassee does not know best. Our streams, lakes, springs, rivers, wetlands and estuaries will pay the price of this quest to centralize power over water management.

Tom Swihart worked until last fall as the administrator of the Office of Water Policy in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. His new book, Florida's Water: A Fragile Resource in a Vulnerable State, is being published next month.

Takeover of Florida water shuts out citizens 06/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 6:17pm]
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