Author seeks to slow damage to Florida’s water management system

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection appear to be exercising more control over the state’s five water management districts, calling for statewide consistency while providing “one clear and consistent message.”

But Tom Swihart, author of “Florida’s Water: A Fragile Resource in a Vulnerable State,” says Florida wouldn’t have been able to protect water as well as it has without having its five regional water management districts with substantial autonomy.

Swihart was administrator of the Office of Water Policy in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the last 14 years until 2010. His book was published in July by RFF Press. It’s a must-read for lawmakers and anyone who cares about Florida and the water that we need for survival.

Florida’s modern system of five water management districts was established by the Legislature in 1972. In 1976, voters adopted a constitutional amendment granting all of them the power to levy property taxes. Fifty-five percent voted in favor, which would not meet the 60 percent requirement now in place for constitutional amendments to pass.

Agriculture, developers and business groups have complained for more than 20 years about water management districts being led by unelected boards with taxing, rule-making and regulatory enforcement authority.

In June, Scott signed SB 2142 to cut water district property taxes by $210 million, or an average of 30 percent.

The Legislature also set budgets for the districts for the first time ever, Swihart said, and required budget review and approval by the Legislative Budget Commission.

The Legislature also passed HB 421, exempting agriculture from water district permits in response to a fight between the St. Johns River Water Management District and an Alachua County farmer who filled in wetlands.

In April, Scott sent a letter to the districts saying that he was directing DEP to carry out oversight to ensure statewide consistency with regulatory and water supply activities while accounting for regional differences.

In August, Vinyard announced $700 million in budget cuts made by the districts under the supervision of the governor and DEP. He said the cuts will help the districts to refocus on what he said were their core missions: Water supply, flood protection, water quality and natural systems protection.

“I don’t have the ability to look backwards as to what has been done before,” Vinyard said. “But looking forward that’s what we’re focused on: What are we going to do, what are our priorities? This is an opportunity to refocus on what we are supposed to be doing.”

Swihart says looking back and understanding the history of the state’s system of water governance also is important when looking forward.

The five water management districts, he said, have helped guide conservation efforts and protected natural resources, including purchasing floodplains along the Suwannee River, restoring the upper St. Johns River, resolving the Tampa Bay water wars and conserving vast tracts of the Florida Panhandle.

The rhetoric coming from the governor now, Swihart said, is reminiscent of the “Pork Chop Gang,” the rural Panhandle legislators whose control over the Capitol during the mid-20th century far exceeded the small populations they represented.

“We are kind of back 30, 45 years ago with the old pork-choppers and old fashioned thinking on water management,” Swihart said earlier this month.

“It is an echo chamber. You are hearing what was said before we developed our contemporary views on water management. I think the book makes that case.”

“Florida’s Water” lays out the history of Florida’s water disputes and controversies and describes the laws, policies and programs that have shaped the state since its leaders thought that draining the Everglades was a good idea.

He describes the challenges facing each of the districts based on their unique geography, growth and land characteristics. And he points out the key decisions facing each of those districts and the state in the future.

Last month, Swihart said he read letters from Gov. Rick Scott to the water management districts about the $700 million in cuts. He said those letters contained little specific direction or guidance on priorities — despite what Vinyard says about refocusing on the districts’ core missions.

“It’s fun to say, ‘Cut your budget.’ The responsible thing is to say, ‘These are the growing priorities in Florida water and you need to focus on these things.’ That was pretty much absent from the letters I looked at.”

More changes will be proposed in the 2012 legislative session from the House Select Committee on Water Policy, which met this week. But Swihart points out that the Legislature took major action already this year before the committee could issue recommendations.

Swihart said he wrote the book to recommend improvements to state water policy and water management. By the time the book came out last summer, he said the bigger goal became to reduce the damage to what he considered to be one of the nation’s best systems of water management.

“When you speak to people in Georgia and you speak to people in other states,” Swihart said, “they wish they had a water management system like Florida, (both) the scale of effort we have been putting into it and the degree of independence.”

(Photo of Swihart and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

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  1. Pingback: Review of Swihart’s book, “Florida’s Water” « floridaswater

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