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Everglades restoration project leader tells top scientists: Stay in your lane

South Florida Water Management District executive director Pete Antonacci. [Courtesy of Miami Herald]
Published Jul. 17, 2017

The head of the state agency overseeing the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration project said this week he will no longer let his employees cooperate with the top scientists who are supposed to be advising the project.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Dispute over snail kite puts Everglades restoration at risk

South Florida Water Management District executive director Pete Antonacci declared at a public meeting Thursday that his agency will no longer work with the National Academies of Science — one of the nation's premier scientific organizations — because science advisers there won't "tend to their knitting."

Antonacci told his agency's governing board that he's angry at scientists poking their noses into things that don't concern them and won't back off.

"I regard that as simply a line in the sand," Antonacci told the governing board at the end of its West Palm Beach meeting. "I have informed them we are not going to participate" in a scheduled meeting next month.

He said "my strong recommendation" would be for the state agency to "begin the process of unraveling our relationship" with the scientific group.

A $358,000 annual contract between the state agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Academies calls for a team of scientists to review the Everglades project and produce a report every other year, according to academies spokeswoman Riya V. Anandwala.

The National Academies of Science is America's top collection of scientific minds. Congress created it in 1863 to provide "independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology." Election to its ranks is considered one of the highest honors in science.

Antonacci's complaints drew no comments from his bosses at the water district, but Cara Capp of the National Parks and Recreation Association said he's making a mistake.

"It's disappointing to see the state of Florida turn its back on the scientific body that has contributed so much to our knowledge about the Everglades," Capp said. She said her advocacy group "feels strongly that independent science must be the driving factor for restoring the Everglades."

So did Congress when it approved the Everglades restoration program in 2000. One requirement that it put on the project was that the people building it frequently consult with scientists to make sure they were doing it right.

In 2006, the Corps cut a deal with the National Academies of Science to put together a group to perform a review every other year. The panel is known as the Committee for Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress.

Antonacci, a former prosecutor whose previous job was working as general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott, praised the expertise of the scientists selected for the committee. But he said that in the past year or so they had left behind digging into the science of Everglades restoration and instead focused on things he considered beyond their purview: planning, engineering and policy decisions related to the Everglades.

He said he had fired off a letter that said, in his words, "please stick to your knitting."

"The committee essentially ignored that," he told the board. Instead, the agenda for the scientific panel's next meeting, set for August, "is shot through with policy items dealing with planning and budgets and engineering."

That's why he wants to drop them, he said. In his letter, he suggested replacing the National Academies group with scientists from the University of Florida's Water Institute.

In a July 7 letter replying to Antonacci, a National Academies of Science staffer denied Antonacci's accusation.

"The committee does not make policy, legal, or budgetary recommendations to the (Everglades) program or to Congress," wrote study director Stephanie Johnson. "Some information on budget and management is necessary for the committee to understand the broader context for restoration progress and the relative impact of scientific issues."

The most recent report from the group, issued in December, talked about how the restoration does not include calculations for dealing with climate change and sea level rise — a sore subject for the governor. In the past, Scott has identified himself as a skeptic of the science behind climate change. He has been accused of banning the term "climate change" from state agencies, an accusation his staff has denied.

"Since the goals of this program were established, the scientific community has gained substantial new knowledge on pre-drainage hydrology, climate change, and sea-level rise that have important implications for the restoration plan," the committee noted in that report.

Antonacci did not specifically mention climate change as a reason he wants to break with the scientists. Randy Smith, a spokesman for the agency, denied that was the problem.

"It has nothing to do with climate change," Smith said Friday. "The bottom line is, what Pete is saying is that these people got way outside their lane."

The December report also pointed out that even though funding for the project has improved, "the funding pace remains slower and the project costs are greater than originally envisioned ... which could delay the completion of the program."

No more than 18 percent of the project has been funded, even though it's nearly halfway through the projected 40-year time frame for the work.

That's the kind of thing Antonacci contends the scientists should leave to state and federal officials in charge of the project to worry about.

This is not Antonacci's first conflict with an outside agency since he took charge of the water agency. Last year he accused a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist of threatening to throw him in jail for failing to protect a bird, the Everglades snail kite. The biologist denied saying anything like that, but still called Antonacci to apologize. He refused to take the call.

Antonacci then pushed for revoking his agency's contract with the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the 144,000-acre Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. He contended the federal biologists' failure to eradicate an invasive species called Old World climbing fern meant they should not run the refuge any more.

Federal officials pointed out they have spent nearly $30 million trying to get rid of invasive plants at the refuge.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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