Florida's twisted waterways policy

Published Feb. 1, 2013

It is senseless to give the major polluters a green light to foul the very waterways that taxpayers are spending dearly to fix. But that is what Gov. Rick Scott and the state's Republican leadership continue to do in a twisted cycle of taking with one hand and giving with the other. A governor who has just recommitted to spending money on Everglades restoration projects should recognize the inconsistency.

About two weeks ago, the governor and Cabinet unanimously approved the request of two agriculture companies to continue farming state land under terms that would pump even more pollution into the Everglades cleanup area. The state is also beginning to tally the costs of ignoring the degradation of Florida's springs, with cleanup costs estimated at $122 million (just to start). That hefty price is a natural result in a state that has weakened clean-water efforts for years. And it reflects the damage-now, pay-later environmental policy that harms the state's economy.

State officials defended the no-bid lease deals with A. Duda and Sons and Florida Crystals, contending the farming operations would not interfere with Everglades restoration. But environmental groups note the duration of the 30-year arrangements could tie up restoration projects down the road. They also open an opportunity to pour thousands of additional tons of phosphorus-laden fertilizer into the South Florida basin that federal and state taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to restore.

The state is causing the same self-inflicted injury to Florida's springs. A preliminary list by the Department of Environmental Protection puts the rehab bill at $122 million, 10 times what the state spent on the springs last year and four times the budget for Everglades restoration. Scott disbanded an effort established by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 to explore and address the causes of springs pollution. The GOP-led Legislature repealed a law last year that required inspections of leaky septic tanks. But now the state is spending tax money to get property owners to close down those tanks and hook up to municipal sewer systems.

The state will never get ahead of a cycle that gives polluters more license to foul the water while squeezing money to clean it up. And the costs to restore these waterways do not include compounding losses to public health, private property, tourism, commercial fisheries or new water supply projects that become necessary because of the degradation of the water supply. Scott and the Legislature need to bring environmental policy and budgeting much more in line so the two work in concert and not at odds with each other.