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Published Oct. 21, 2013

While state regulators impose watering restrictions on the rest of us, and ask residents to install low-flow shower heads, citrus growers in Hillsborough and Pasco counties are repeatedly allowed to pump more water from the ground than their state permits allow. This water is a public resource, which is why the Southwest Florida Water Management District issues permits in the first place. Agriculture is vital to Florida, but the agency has an obligation to enforce its rules and to responsibly manage this natural resource.

The Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman reported Friday that more than two dozen growers had exceeding their permits this year, saying the overpumping was necessary to fight a tree root disease called citrus greening. Grower Dennis Carlton said the extra water is needed because the disease causes the tree roots to shrivel up, restricting their intake of water. Another grower, Ellis Hunt Jr., said even more pumping was needed, adding: "I don't think Swiftmud wants to be responsible for the demise of the citrus industry."

If anything, Swiftmud is being too lenient. The agency has not punished a single grower. And its executive director is apologizing for the industry. "It's a little hard to penalize somebody for doing what they think is right," Robert Beltran said. By that standard, anything goes. And Beltran's insistence that "the farmers are out there doing what they can to protect their investment" shows a lack of balance and priorities. The public that employs him has an investment, too, in the health of the aquifer. Swiftmud's job is to balance the needs of all users when it comes to a public natural resource. It's clearly failed when growers are pumping up to eight times their daily allowable limits.

Swiftmud has launched a three-year study of greening, which will be helpful given that several experts told the Times that watering isn't necessarily the best treatment for trees that are plagued by greening. The agency also said Friday it will not wait for those studies to address the growers' overuse of water; Swiftmud will examine why the growers exceeded their permits and explore ways to bring them into compliance.

That's a good start by the agency. The state needs to have a constructive relationship with one of Florida's most important industries. But that cannot come at the price of mismanaging natural resources. With the dry season around the corner, it is essential that Swiftmud move quickly to address the growers' use of water. The public has an economic stake in the ecology, too, just as Swiftmud has a stake in appearing evenhanded.