It's hard to imagine how local officials could compound the damage that Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature have caused to the environment. But this week, the Southwest Florida Water Management District found a way. The agency that oversees water resources on Florida's west coast agreed to disband the boards that see to the needs of local water basins. The move was a rash response to bullying from Tallahassee that undermines the environment, transparency and local control.
Board members of the agency known as Swiftmud voted to get rid of the seven basin boards in a move agency officials said was prompted by demands from the governor and Legislature that Swiftmud cut its budget. The boards are volunteer, though the move will save Swiftmud about $400,000 in staffing costs. The real savings from disbanding the boards comes from putting an end to their tax levies. Officials said absorbing the boards' work under Swiftmud would help the agency reach its mandate to cut its budget by 40 percent, or $112 million, next year.
Swiftmud concedes it had no directive from the governor and was reading the tea leaves from Tallahassee. The governor — as usual — was on radio silence; his environmental protection agency thinks the idea is great. But this is much more than a paper loss. Swiftmud has lauded the basin boards for their focus on the unique hydrologic needs across the district's 16-county region. The boards provide a local perspective on the specific problems these watersheds face, and they serve as forums for communities to prioritize what they need, from environmental programs to new water supply projects. Basin board tax money has played a key role in helping local governments afford the expensive costs of developing new drinking water resources, such as the desalination plant that serves millions of residents throughout Tampa Bay.
It also is essential to view the agency's retreat in the broader context of how this governor and Legislature are rolling back environmental protections. The agency is letting down its guard at the same time Florida's Republican leadership is easing development rules, fighting the federal government over cleaner water standards and making it harder for communities to stand up to abusive land-management practices. The state's natural resources are being weakened by the same politicians whose model for Florida's economic recovery revolves around the availability of land, open space and clean water.
The move also plays into Scott's penchant for secrecy. The proposal to disband the basin boards was not publicly debated; the district board member who cast the lone vote against it said it had "been in the works from Tallahassee" for months. The vote came two days before the agency's longtime director suddenly resigned — a move the board chairman suggested also was influenced by Tallahassee. Fewer protections, less local control, and more secrecy are bad for public health, the economy and open government.