Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Four Questions for Sonny Vergara"

Tom Swihart spent a career thinking about how Florida might best manage its water resources which are so critical to what the state is all about today and where it’s going to be in the years ahead.  He has written a book about it (Florida’s Water:  A Fragile Resource in a Vulnerable State).  A must-read for folks seriously interested in the importance of successful and smart management of Florida’s water resources.

Tom also publishes a blog about water, Watery Foundation, and you should check it out as well.  Reading his and this blog, SWFWMDmatters, over the past months, along with the growing din of editorial grumbling at all published levels, one clearly gets the idea that CEO Scott is a Florida natural resource management disaster in the making. 

A month or two ago, probably in a momentary lapse of good sense, Tom asked me to answer a few questions which I agreed to do.  My responses are way too long, but I offer no apology.  As is said, it is what it is and try as I might I wouldn’t change any of it except for the usual bad grammar, misspellings, and odd punctuation that reflect more guesswork than knowledge of sentence structure. Here, for what it's worth, is what he published:

Four Questions for Sonny Vergara

Emilio (Sonny) Vergara is the only person that has served as Executive Director of two Florida Water Management Districts (St. Johns River and Southwest Florida) and a Regional Water Supply Authority (Peace River/Manasota). He is active in the Florida Conservation Coalition and maintains the hard-hitting SWFWMD Matters blog. I very much appreciate that he agreed to answer four water management questions I posed to him. 

Q. What should be the key goals of Florida water management?

Before trying to answer directly, some historical context ...

To begin with, the question might be best answered by Herschel Vinyard and Jeff Littlejohn since they developed a public relations blitz based on getting districts “back” to their “core mission.”  Using the word back suggests they believe the districts have gone astray from what they were supposed to be doing over the last five decades and these two fellows somehow know better than anyone what the districts should have been doing but weren’t.  Getting the districts “back” (to somewhere) has since become their rallying cry for fundamentally changing them from what earlier Governors and legislatures have been directing them to do for the last 50 years.  It is becoming clear now that getting the districts back to their “core mission” was nothing but a subterfuge to allow Tallahassee to begin an immediate transformation process that has lasted three years now and has gone far beyond any reductions that might have been appropriate to reflect a struggling national economy.  While perhaps legitimate-sounding on the surface, it became clear that a much less legitimate intention was at hand.  

Plainly put, their true intent was to clear the way for big business (agriculture, power, mining, land development and – in short – the members of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Land Council) to be able to avoid having to deal with distracting and worrisome environmental and growth management regulations.  When this became apparent to certain well-heeled private sector parties, it released a pent up feeding frenzy by Tallahassee lobbyists to take as much advantage of the situation as possible and see how much “reduction” they could do to environmental and growth management regulations as well. 

The administration’s plan was first to stop, de-authorize and, in some cases, simply disregard environmental and growth management regulations at every opportunity. Then, the agencies themselves were to be dismantled and weakened by defunding their revenue sources and shredding their regulatory staffs to the point they now have very little capacity to function as they should.  Today, remaining agency scientists and staffers work in abject fear of their Tallahassee-installed supervisors and of losing their jobs in embarrassing ways, like how a very unprofessional reduction in force was carried out at the direction of Jeff Littlejohn and Herschel Vineyard at the Tampa office of DEP. 

Vinyard and Littlejohn are now forging new regulatory policies by letting regulated, private -sector entities write them.  If that concept isn’t bothersome enough, such actions are not only inappropriate but very likely illegal.  Chapter 120, F.S, requires that before implementing a policy with significant implications a regulatory agency must follow certain procedures, which include vetting the proposed policy’s potential impacts with the affected public and using rule adoption protocols to institute them.  The Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit offers a case in point where a policy fundamental to all environmental permitting in Florida was simply replaced on the fly and implemented by DEP deputy secretary, Jeff Littlejohn. It was done with the only public input coming from the applicant’s attorney.  The existing policy, known as “reasonable assurance,” was declared inoperative and the new policy was immediately instated.  Certainly, any policy that will set the standard for complex and important public interest matters such as the safe and effective management of the state’s water resources and the unique natural systems that depend upon them, should be subjected to the procedures prescribed by Chapter 120. 

So, the claim that the districts needed to get back their core mission was essentially the new administration’s version of a Trojan Horse.  Saying changes were needed to reflect the state’s declining economy, while sounding reasonable, was actually nothing more than a disingenuous ruse to hide the real transformation they were pursuing which was to dismantle Florida’s carefully evolved environmental and growth protections to the maximum extent possible.

Historically, the statutory goals of the districts have morphed substantially from their primary focus on, for example, flood control.  There is no question about this.  The reasons for it, however, are obvious and sound.  Legislators and governors from both parties found it necessary to assign additional duties to the districts over the years because of the expanding needs of a growing population and a changing society that was demanding it.  The reason this was believed  to be the way to go was that the state could not afford the cost but the districts could, so it was delegated to them. 

For one significant example, an unfunded mandate that had enormous impact on the districts’ budgets and taxing levels resulted from passage of the Warren S. Henderson Wetlands Protection Act of 1984.  This act required DEP to begin regulating all dredge and fill operations.  The responsibility for implementing this new responsibility was quickly delegated to the districts, however, because elected state officials simply were not going to take the heat that would be generated by raising the taxes necessary to pay for it. 

Today we know that limiting regulation of pollution, flooding, water use, loss of wetlands, wildlife, wildlife habitat, recharge lands, and shorelines, simply because it might affect the state’s economy to some degree, will not lead to any long-term prosperity for the state.  We are realizing that absolute limits need to be set because, in the end, not setting them will result in irreparable harm to the state’s physical and economic well being.  In other words, we now have to draw clear and absolute lines in the sand.  Setting Minimum Flows and Levels and Total Maximum Daily Load limits are two examples where the attempts to achieve this are already underway.  It is endgame thinking.  If founded upon good science and wise policy, allowing maximum or minimum limits to be exceeded could cause negative impacts from which recovery might not be possible, could be very long–term, very expensive, or all the above. 

Therefore, I suggest the key goal of water management should be to have their authority, autonomy, and funding capacity returned at least to where it was before 2010.  Urbanization of the state has not stopped and everyday it continues the attendant resource problems grow more complex and solving them gets more expensive.  It is ridiculous to think that the key to the future is to create a weaker, more highly politicized, less science-driven, less experienced, Tallahassee-controlled resource management agency to replace what was in place before 2010.  As urbanization continues to threaten those aspects of natural Florida that, if destroyed, will have a devastating impact on its economic future, it is frightening to think what has become of the country’s most respected water management system.  It has become only a flimsy, filmy rendition of what it was and it will not be able to do the job.  Changes must be made.

More specifically, some goals for water management should include: 

1.     Remain as autonomous as possible from Tallahassee political interference.  The governor’s oversight and appointment authority is appropriate and adequate.  The legislature can initiate further direction by proposing and vetting laws needed to keep the districts’ abilities to solve problems in line with ever-changing statutory charges and priorities.  Governing board members are not incapable and should not have been completely marginalized as they have.  The way it is today, with all decisions being made in Tallahassee, there’s hardly any reason for them to continue to exist. 

2.     Return control of the districts’ constitutionally authorized ad valorem taxing authority to the governing boards.  In 2010 and 2011, most of it was taken from them by the legislature and the governor’s office.  Florida’s constitution prohibits property taxes levied at the state level.  The current level of legislative and gubernatorial control of district budgets may be encroaching upon that prohibition.  Governing boards were created to identify and prioritize resource problems and determine the funding needed to resolve them at the regional (non-state) level.  Today, however, any legislator who is friendly with an applicant can bring pressure upon a district’s regulatory decision-making processes. Lobbyists and their regulated clients are having a field day.  Also, while DEP has supervisory duties over the districts by statute, it was never intended that the secretary of the department should dictate what they are to do, how they are do it, or try to influence the issuance of permits  - all of which appears is to be happening today.  Governing board members know the problems within their districts and they know they will be among those paying the taxes levied to fix them. They should be able to generate their own budgets within reasonable millage caps set by the legislature, determine the optimum staffing levels needed to achieve their priorities, and hire their own executive director - none of which is happening today. 

3.     The idea that Florida’s water resources should be somehow made available to the private sector to sell to the highest bidder needs to be ended once and for all.  Recent covert attempts (City of Tampa; 2012; HB639; Dana Young) to become owners of water and be able to place a value on it beyond what it costs to develop, treat and transport it, should be halted.  While privatizing water might sound reasonable in some contexts, the bottom line is that its price will be market-driven and those who need it the most will have to pay the most.  In this kind of world, price control through competition will not work as public supplies become very limited and only a few control them.  Privatizing water supplies and selling it as a commodity will only create great wealth for a few at the expense of virtually the entire population of Florida, because every member of it must have it. 

4.     Remove the dollar caps placed upon the districts’ budgets and leave their ability to meet their statutory obligations alone.  Governing board members are appointed by the governor who has adequate oversight to keep district budgets in check.  The limits the legislature set on the abilities of the governing boards to support a budget capable of addressing known resource problems is preventing them from effectively carrying out their statutory duties. 

5.     Modify the millage caps set by the legislature in 2010 and 2011 back to what they were before. 

6.     Priorities for water management: 

a.      Return science as the basis for regulatory and resource management decisions instead of political doctrine or influence.  Science is no longer a primary consideration in the issuance of a permit as exemplified by: the Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank permit;  no-bid leases to specific entities being dictated by the legislature; the continuing inability to stop additional withdrawals or pollution within the springsheds of major springs despite the obvious damage, and; the fact that the issuance of permits is routinely influenced by Tallahassee. 

b.     Co-partner with local governments on projects that are consistent with statutory directives and do not create conflicts of interest with the districts’ regulatory responsibilities.  Limit co-funding for local projects to the ad valorem taxes paid by those who will benefit from the project.  Establish a pathway for local input on projects to be undertaken and who is going to pay for them.  This was standard protocol in SWFWMD before its basin boards were eliminated and their governor-appointed members fired by the new Scott administration. 

c.      Aggressively continue setting absolute limitations designed to prevent damaging over-withdrawals from identified water bodies.  Good science and sound policies must be followed.  Politicizing the development of policies and its supporting science will only result in ineffective or dangerous decisions that can cause terrible mistakes and irreversible damage. 

d.     Aggressively continue setting absolute limitations designed to prevent identified water bodies from damaging pollution levels from point and non-point pollution sources.  But to restate, politicizing the process will only poison the credibility of the limits and their projected effectiveness. 

e.      Continue the acquisition of conservation lands, which has been functionally halted for the last three legislative sessions.  Acquisition of conservation lands is vital to the state’s future.  If significant funding ever again becomes available, public ownership in fee title should be the primary objective.  The current thinking is that ownership of conservation easements without ownership of the property is just as effective.  In the long term, it is not.  This should be resisted.  Any belief that acquisition of conservation easements is going to permanently preserve and protect natural Florida in perpetuity to the same extent as the public actually owning the property, is not valid.  In some cases, it may be the only alternative available to reach a conservation goal, but placing land in public ownership is always the better alternative.  Many times the cost of an easement is very near the actual market value of the land.  The purchase of certain rights vs. fee title becomes a windfall for the seller.  Conservation easements rarely sufficiently constrain the current uses of the landowners who remain in total control of the property  Usually, conservation rights preclude public rights of entry. This is not a bargain that serves the public’s best interests. 

f.      Aggressively continue to develop and require conservation of water.  Reduction of demand through conservation and reuse is going to be the only available answer for meeting the future water supply needs of many communities that have no other viable alternative.  Carry out and support efforts to research and develop cost effective alternative processes to treat water to drinking water standards.  Avoid perpetually supplementing the cost of developing, treating and distributing water.  Real and actual cost will be higher but it can substantially reduce per capita consumption by causing needed changes in water use behavior. This is not to preclude partnering by the districts with local entities on a one-time basis in order to incentivize their decision to use a process that has greater environmental value. 

g.     Carry out water supply planning and water resource management based upon surface and groundwater basins.  Planning should be based on the ability of a basin’s resources to support the plan.  Avoid inter-basin transfers that only serve the future of one community at the expense of another. This is neither good planning nor good government. 

h.     All policies and regulations should be aimed at protecting and preserving what’s left of Florida’s natural hydrologic and biologic systems. 

i.       Be leaders in resource monitoring (data gathering) and development of the sciences (research) needed to make informed water resource management decisions. 

j.       Maintain a vigorous public education and information program and solicit the support of a constantly changing population’s participation in the most effective water use practices.  The current thinking in Tallahassee is that “outreach” is inappropriate agency promotion.  In reality, it is a valuable strategy used to educate and obtain public support and participation in achieving water resource management objectives. For example, reducing per capita usage by an informed and motivated public from 120 gallons per day to 100 gallons per day for the population of Tampa Bay (which let’s assume is 4 million) would free up 80 million gallons every day to meet the demands of future growth and natural systems.  Public education through water management outreach has been seriously misunderstood by the current administration.  Outreach became one of the most targeted district activities for reduction by Tallahassee because it was considered unnecessary. 

k.     Reinstitute a quality growth management function for Florida and join it at the hip with comprehensive water resource planning.  Presently, the result of the legislature’s dismantling of the state’s primary planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs, has been to deny the state the ability to set a clear course for managing growth in the future.  It is a state where Tallahassee leaders have essentially washed their hands of the responsibility and set it adrift with no apparent concern that 67 individual and separate county commissions are now in charge of its future.  It is almost laughable, were not so idiotic, that Florida, the country’s fourth most populated state, has decided that having and following a master plan for its future growth was unnecessary.  It is ridiculous, and it should be embarrassing within all of our highest elected offices.  

l.       Be as frugal and effective as possible but avoid indiscriminant across the board budget cuts which can hinder resource management capabilities.  Cut only where appropriate and consistent with the district’s responsibilities and priorities. 

Q. What is the biggest Florida water problem? [[Or you could address also the second-biggest, third biggest, etc. Up to you.] 

The biggest Florida water problem today is the fact that the capacities of the districts have been curtailed to the point that they can no longer successfully and effectively achieve their many responsibilities.  They are underfunded and understaffed, which will give the legislature a perfect opportunity to declare them Passé and attempt to replace them with institutions of completely different responsibilities, authorities and funding sources  The objective being, to replace them with new institutions that cannot and will not be as effective as what the state had before 2010.  This situation is the result of vast ignorance finding itself in positions of great power with no knowledge of what needs doing or how to go about doing it, and having to rely on those who do know but who are guided only by short term, self-serving purposes and could not care less about Florida’s long term future.

The biggest problem tomorrow,  is obtaining enough sustainable and affordable water to meet the state’s future demands and still maintain healthy natural ecosystems consisting of adequate and clean flows for sustaining natural water bodies and the natural biological systems that depend upon them.

Q. What aspects of water management have gotten worst? 

Frankly, I can’t think of one aspect of water management in Florida that hasn’t gotten worse.  The scenarios depicted above pretty well describe what and why.

Q. What aspects of Florida water management have gotten better?

Frankly, I can’t think of one that has. The scenarios depicted above pretty well describe what and why.


  1. Hi Sonny - You hit the nail on the head, you get a gold star and an A+ for your comments. I don't see one point or item in your response to Tom that folks who care about Florida's water resources would not agree with.

  2. Sonny. When I first read this a week or so ago my thought was you were too focused on process issues and short on actual water resource issues, there's more problems than just the quantity of water. Not that I disagree with your assessment of the political structure. I had no inclination to toss a comment out until I read this mornings Tampa Bay Times article on the latest efforts of Carlos Beruff to ram rod another one of his development plans through the government regulatory process. There were two quotes from this clown that caught my attention. The first was "he complained that too many people were cynical about government", and at the end of the article, "You're never going to so something if it harms the environment"..."That would never be allowed to happen". OMG does this clown really believe people will buy that crap from him? He is why people are cynical about government. He gets appointed to these government oversight boards and committees because he contributes heavily to the now prevailing party (the article points out he's contributed to 6 of the 7 County Commissioners). He contributed heavily to Scott and that is why he was "placed" as the SWFWMD chairman. I've dealt with Beruff and he's told me to my face that the regulatory programs in the state are too restrictive and hamper economic growth. He probably believes that when he's sitting on his 80 foot boat yacht and feels he could have bought a 100 footer if it just wasn't for those darn regulators. His actions speak for themselves. He was sued by the SWFWMD (and lost) back in the late 1990's for bulldozing wetlands to build a 7-eleven in Manatee Co. He oblivious to the fact that the subject project of the article will require dredging Sarasota Bay (no environmental damage?), because he feels the economic gains (mostly his) far outweigh the environment. One has to wonder how he thinks our polluted waters, continued loss of wetlands under the current regulations, and declining aquifer levels (think Springs) is happening when according to him, "You'll never going to do something if it harms the environment". This from a guy who exposed about how the 911 firemen and policemen killed in NYC were getting too much attention and benefits. This guy hates government and he is it. He and those that think like him infest our public policy boards and commissions. It is a result of why we elect the Rick Scotts, its because the people who press that election button are more concerned for their wallet than anything else, and I'm talking about those that are in the middle to upper middle class, not all the "rich", as the number of rich isn't what gets them elected. They think they are better off because they can look at their local and State government and see the budgets decline, but they are baffled when their property values decline because the surrounding environment, school system and infrastructure degrades. Sonny stay on this clown as he is welding his power at the SWFWMD by self appointing the new Executive Director, cutting environmental programs, and curtailing public input by controlling the agenda. Very little is allowed to come before the Board unless it can't be avoided. The new board doesn't even understand how that effects them, as in the "old days" discussion of somewhat routine water issues and process was the way members got educated and formed the basis of policy. Now policy is all about who can come across as the most fiscally conservative member. Enough!

  3. Another great item in the article attributed to the man (Beroff) who worked hard to eliminate all state development and water resource regulations: ...The opponents should have faith that regulators would ensure that Long Bar Point would be beneficial... I bet if he looked in the mirror it would explain to him why, as he said ...many people are cynical about government...

    I don't believe that this will happen, but it would be nice if your blog made it to the District's clip tracks.

  4. What regulators? The regulators working for the DEP and WMD rejoiced when this was shot down at the local level, for now, because if it came to them, they knew if they raised any concerns they would be targetted by their bosses. Don't think so? Beruff ushered in Robert Beltran as the new executive director without any advertisement for the position. Think Beltran is going to let anyone on his staff upset the guy that proped him up? Think anyone at DEP will do the same as Beruff is contributing heavy to Scott's re-election and Vinyard isn't going to allow the cash cow to get upset either. Think Beruff doesn't have most of the bases covered and gets special treatment? He's created an engineering firm for his wife to handle his developemnt projects. Go check and see how many additional information letters she gets. This is like the meat inspector that raises and sells cattle that he inspects. If anyone believes there are checks and balances in place to ensure the environment is being protected, I think they should go on line and read the bio's of the members of the WMD boards and you will be see how many are developers and consutlants that have to get permits. Think they aren't looking out for their interests or marketing themselves and their company, as an insider. Wow.

  5. I usually comment openly but recently have realized I need to be more prudent. I became aware that Berkeley Prep- where a good many of SWFWMD board members have an 'interest' was finally held somewhat accountable for the shameful disregard for the wetlands they exhibited, in flaunting their ability to pave over the largest Roseate Spoonbill population in Florida, as well as countless other wading birds, for more parking for their little darlings., and construction of another monument to excess and privilege, dumping construction waste into the wetlands daily.Despite repeated visits to the campus by members of the EPA - usually cowed interns left cooling their heels in the office until the designated escort was rounded up, the school continued to disregard rules, regulations and environmental laws, until finally someone at with the Army Corps of Engineers realized they'd been snookered. Luckily for them, environmental lawyers are not what their name implies, and they abound on the board of both Berkeley Prep and SWFWMD