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A Times Editorial

Threatening Florida's water

JEOPARDIZING FLORIDA'S DRINKING WATER, scrapping purchases of sensitive lands, and rubber-stamping permits for agricultural and industrial water hogs puts the state's future at risk. Yet for Gov. Rick Scott's administration, that is reason to celebrate. And for all the damage he and the Legislature already have caused, the governor is just getting started.

Scott's secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Herschel Vinyard, conducted an odd 14-minute news conference last week to praise the dismantling of the state's five water management districts. He hailed the districts' efforts to carry out $700 million in devastating budget cuts, and he echoed Scott's vague talk about returning to core missions. Then Vinyard promptly cut off questions about the damage that already has been done to the state's ability to protect and manage fresh water.

To be sure, the water management districts probably spent too much and expanded too quickly when times were good and tax revenue flowed — just as other state and local government agencies did. Like other government agencies, they were ripe for streamlining. But these cuts go far beyond pruning the staff and reducing salaries and benefits. The vast majority of the savings next year comes from halting the purchase of sensitive lands. And the districts would slash tens of millions of dollars by forgoing new water supply projects and the maintenance and restoration of water recharge areas.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which covers the Tampa Bay area and is commonly known as Swiftmud, would cut its budget for land purchases, restoration and major projects by 67 percent. In northwest Florida, the water management district would cover most of next year's budget with cash reserves. South Florida's water management agency would suffer the biggest hit, $519 million. That has forced more than 100 layoffs and a downgrade in the district's credit rating. The district said it has no plans to borrow, given the governor's pay-as-you-go directive. So much for buying additional land for Everglades restoration in the near future.

The damage likely will be permanent. Several districts have made clear that without reversing the property tax cuts, they cannot sustain their operations beyond four or five years. Yet Scott insists these cuts "are just the first steps." He wants the districts to spend down their reserves, saving just enough to operate for two months. He also wants to cap salaries and make them uniform across the state. None of that makes sense. The regional water management districts are set up along hydrologic boundaries, not political or population lines. The Suwannee River district serves 320,000 people, for example; the South Florida district serves 24 times that number. Arbitrary caps will only hurt an agency's ability to hire and deal with that watershed's unique needs.

The South Florida district already plans to reassess its science and research commitments in the coming year while exploring "opportunities for additional regulatory streamlining" and "further operational efficiencies." See where this is going? Vinyard said the cuts would deliver "regulatory certainty." Translation: water consumption permits on demand.

There is nothing wrong with streamlining spending on the water management districts; in this slow economic recovery, every government agency has taken a cut. But Scott is being dishonest about the damage. He also ignores the reason behind the so-called mission creep; it's been the state over the years that has delegated many new responsibilities to the water management districts, not empire building as the governor suggests.

Water management districts serve an essential role in maintaining the state's ability to provide drinking water, protect against floods and attract tourism and growth. Under the pretense of saving money and cutting regulation to help the economy, the governor is starving them to death.

Threatening Florida's water 08/27/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 27, 2011 4:32am]
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