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Water Management Board Vacancies Concern Some Conservationists

Waterways such as this lake in the Hampton Tract Preserve are managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District
The health of waters such as this lake in the Hampton Tract Preserve in Lakeland are the responsibility of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which finds itself awaiting six more gubernatorial appointments. FLICKR.COM

The Southwest Florida Water Management Board met this week. At last.

The board had to cancel a meeting recently because it lacked enough members present to have a quorum. Only seven of its 13 seats were filled at the time, and one member did not attend. The other vacant seats were awaiting appointments from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And while the water management district has now approved its $202 million budget and its tax rate for homeowners in the 16 counties it covers, some conservationists are looking at water district board vacancies with concern. Is DeSantis living up to his environmental agenda announced in January, or is he dragging his feet?

“He has made some bold promises to improving water quality, and we're going to continue to advocate for that and hold them accountable for those promises,” said Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“And we know that there are a lot of things going on that should be concluding, you know, right around now at the end of summer, beginning of fall,” Lopez said. “So we'll start to see if the administration is able to put his money where his mouth is and really deliver on some of the promises of improving Florida's water quality.”

Lopez added it is crucial that the water districts address red tide and blue-green algae blooms statewide. A task force on blue-green algae held its last meeting Wednesday, but its recommendations have not yet been sent to the water districts to be implemented.

Other water districts have received speedier attention. In South Florida, where the sugar industry and Everglades restoration are high-profile issues, DeSantis quickly moved to replace the entire South Florida Water Management District Board in January after it refused to put off a November 2018 vote on a new sugar farming lease that he wanted to review.

Tampa Bay environmentalists remain cautiously optimistic that DeSantis’ environmental promises will come true, and if that means waiting a bit more for the board appointments, so be it.

“We would rather have the right people, good people in these positions and on these boards, then simply having a bunch of who knows what, who either don't care or don't know much about what's going on,” said Mary Keith, the president of the Tampa chapter of the Florida Audubon Society.

Swiftmud board members meet in Tampa on Tuesday to pass a budget
Although still not at full strength, the governing board for the Southwest Florida Water Management District managed to have a quorum on Tuesday to pass its $202 million budget.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District has a 13-member governing board, with six current vacancies remaining. Last week, DeSantis reappointed one member, Kelly Rice of Webster, the owner of Prime Property Resources and the president of Rice Cattle Company. He also appointed a new member, Roger Germann of Tampa, the president and chief executive officer of the Florida Aquarium.

The district covers 10,000 square miles and has taxing authority over nearly 5 million residents.

The water district covering Tampa Bay is not alone in its vacancies. The Suwannee River Water Management District also canceled a meeting for a lack of quorum.

DeSantis’ press secretary told the Tampa Bay Times that the governor is taking more time to carefully select the right board members.

DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, had been criticized by environmentalists for slashing water district budgets by $700 million in 2011 and for appointing only business or agricultural interests to district board vacancies.

Lopez acknowledges that it is still early to judge the governor.

“Perhaps it's just premature, but there are so many irons that should be in the fire and ostensibly are…,” she said. “Who knows how the vacancies will be filled and how that might influence decision-making moving forward. But people are really anxious to see definitive action taken right away.”

Southwest Florida Water Management District Budget Facts
Source: Southwest Florida Water Management District

  • $25.7 million for development of alternative water supplies to ensure an adequate supply of water resources for all existing and future reasonable and beneficial uses.
  • ·$20.8 million for springs initiatives to restore springs and spring-fed rivers to improve water quality and clarity as well as restore natural habitats.
  • $5.7 million for water quality improvements to treat stormwater runoff before discharging directly or indirectly to water bodies.
  • $24.4 million for Watershed Management Program plans and projects to reduce flooding and improve water quality based on a comprehensive evaluation of a watershed’s historical and existing features.

The adopted FY2020 millage rate is 0.2801 mill, 5.2 percent lower than the current fiscal year... . For the owner of a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption, the District tax would be $28.01 a year, or about $2.33 per month.

Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.
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