Piece by piece, Florida's water policy is being dismantled. First, Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature forced the state's water management districts to slash property tax collections. Then the Scott administration pressured the Southwest Florida Water Management District to eliminate its local basin boards, and its executive director to resign. Now the administration is overturning decisions by water management districts to buy property to protect water supplies. Such political interference by a governor is unprecedented, and it undermines the professional management of the state's water resources.
Last month, Swiftmud's board was poised to approve the purchase of 800 acres in Pasco County to expand the 20,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve. The water management district had studied the purchase for a year and a half, and it wanted to create an additional buffer between planned development and the preserve, a critical watershed. The land, on the north of State Road 54 between Odessa and Trinity in southern Pasco, had a below-appraisal sale price of $7 million that would have come from the Florida Forever Trust Fund.
Then the Department of Environmental Protection, which routinely signs off on such purchases, abruptly signaled it was reconsidering its position. By June 1, just 13 days after approving the transaction, Mike Long, the assistant DEP director for state lands, wrote a second letter rescinding the approval. The DEP contradicted the Swiftmud experts, maintaining the additional acres weren't a critical acquisition after all. A similar series of events also has unfolded in the Suwannee River Water Management District in North Florida, where the DEP approved and then rescinded permission to purchase 30 acres and a conservation easement for another 120 acres.
Environmental advocates cannot recall a previous administration overruling the technical expertise of water management districts in land-buying decisions. Florida's regional water management districts were designed so that scientists most familiar with natural systems could implement sound policy with minimal political tampering. Scott's maneuvers also break from the state's decadeslong, bipartisan commitment to land conservation.
Trey Starkey, grandson of the family patriarch who assembled the ranch and recognized the value in preserving it for future generations, has figured out the state's new policy. "It's, 'Don't buy any more land,' '' Starkey told St. Petersburg Times staff writer Lee Logan.
Scott's emphasis on less regulation and less government spending is not without merit. But his disregard for local control and environmental science has damaging consequences for future generations. His administration should not cancel property purchases and overrule the judgment of the water management districts charged with protecting the state's water supply.