Florida's water resources shouldn't be controlled by just five people across the state. Nonetheless, that ill-advised plan is now part of an otherwise environmentally friendly bill before Gov. Charlie Crist. But concentrating control of the state's precious water supply is too much to pay for the other provisions, and the governor needs to follow his gut and veto SB 2080.
Originally, the bill's laudable intent was to encourage water savings by making it clear that neighborhoods could not prevent homeowners from replacing thirsty sod with Florida-friendly landscapes. But a last-minute amendment from Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, resurrected a House proposal to dismantle environmental regulations under the guise of stimulating the economy. The result demonstrates the dangers of such late-session legislating, with Alexander acknowledging afterward, "I didn't take a deep policy look at this; I probably should have.''
The bill would transfer permitting authority for large-scale water pumping and wetlands destruction to the executive directors of the state's five water management districts. That authority now rests with the 49 gubernatorial appointees who serve on the governing boards of the five water management districts. Decisions on large requests — more than a 500,000 gallons a day of groundwater pumping and destruction of more than an acre of wetlands — must be made in open meetings with comment accepted from all interested parties.
The new scheme proposed under SB 2080 is a great disservice to the public. Applicants could appeal to the district board if the director rejects a permit application. But opponents of permits that are granted by an executive director — say environmental groups, conservation advocates, the general public or even a competitor — would have no similar right to appeal.
Tilting the rules in favor of developers should not be construed as a reform, no matter how much proponents spin. It is an unapologetic attempt to stifle public participation in the oversight of natural resource protection. The only options for citizens seeking redress would be to file for an administrative hearing or to appeal to the governor and Cabinet. As noted by the Audubon of Florida, the great expense of litigation, for all practical purposes, would exclude citizens and public interest groups from being able to attempt to influence the regulatory process.
At least one of the five governing boards recognizes an end run around public accountability. The Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board is considering ordering its director to deny every permit application in order to preserve the board members' role in the decisionmaking processing. The remaining water management districts should follow suit if this legislation is allowed to become law.
It shouldn't come to that. Crist has signaled he is not enthusiastic about concentrating so much power over the water supply in a handful of people. He needs to protect the public's interest in safeguarding natural resources and veto SB 2080.