Last week, Kevin Spear, reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, called and asked if I would respond to a few questions. His article, published yesterday, can be found HERE.
What the Sentinel published was slightly shorter, 650 words, than my first response which was edited down from about 1000 words. This is the longer version:
CFB: Gov. Scott’s administration has slashed budgets of the water-management districts and ordered them to adhere to core missions. What’s that about?
Vergara: It was a mistake the governor is now in the process of trying to repair in order to get re-elected. Ignorant of the impact of his actions and pandering to right wing sympathies and special interests, he has gloated over his reducing government and taxes. But, he significantly underestimated the complexities and cost of effectively managing the state’s natural environment in a manner that will protect and sustain what’s left of it, and it’s importance to the state’s future economy. He is now tossing state and federal dollars at problems he first discounted, like The Everglades/Lake Okeechobee fiasco, the decimation and polluting of the state’s iconic springs, and the growing fear that there is not enough cheap groundwater to support future growth, to name just a few. Frankly, he has severely handicapped the state’s ability to handle its truly complex and mounting environmental problems. He and the right wing of the legislature will eventually realize, hopefully, that the regional water management taxes they cut are the logical sources of funding for these implacable regional problems. It is foolish to believe they can be politically resolved by Tallahassee and paid for from state coffers, a lesson learned decades ago.
CFB: How have state environmental protections been weakened and what do you fear the results will be?
Vergara: Tallahassee has directed hundreds of talented, nationally respected resource management scientists to be summarily fired. Decades of critical institutional knowledge has been lost. The districts can no longer raise enough funds to do what’s needed because the governor and legislature placed unreasonable limits on their constitution-based authority to levy an ad valorem tax. The tea party’s allegiance to Grover Norquist’s idiocy is now going to prevent the return of this authority for a long time, even as problems mount. In addition to cutting the state’s environmental muscle, it has weakened its tools. The state’s entire body of environmental rules is being reviewed to accommodate the panting of special interests. Rules and policies carefully developed over the last 50 years are being systematically weakened. Other indicators of waning environmental concern by the governor and legislature include the cessation of environmental land acquisition and the continued introduction of narrow interest laws like the ones that would re-define the “Ordinary High Water Line” or move Florida’s public water resources toward private ownership. This annual right-wing legislative frenzy to reduce environmental protections has become a metastasizing cancer. It is systemic and pervasive. It has put every Floridian who cares even a little about Florida’s environment on high alert.
CFB: Who are the winners as a result of Scott’s changes and what have they gained?
Vergara: Special interests, lobbyists, and the politicians who serve them are the winners. They have gained a freehold on the future of the state all in the interest of greater profits at the public’s expense. Any concern for public interest has become nearly equated to socialist thinking. Private interests such as big agriculture, mining companies, power companies, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and other powerful Tallahassee entities have been elevated above the interests of the public.
CFB: Critics have said the state water district’s grew arrogant and too powerful.
Vergara: This tired complaint is used universally by regulated interests to gain political control of regulators. It will never go away because it makes good theater. Regulators are only human, and face some of the most powerful corporate and legal firepower in the business world. Regulators have to be smart and tough if they are to be effective in their jobs protecting the interests of the public. It is difficult not to be defensive at times, often interpreted as arrogance and uncaring, in the face of the aggressiveness of certain powerful private applicants and their well–paid lawyers. The largest majority of the regulators, by far, go out of their way to be courteous and helpful to the extent the law allows them.
CFB: If you were governor for a day, what changes would you bring to environmental safeguards?
Vergara: The biggest resource problem facing Florida today and into the future is obtaining enough sustainable and affordable water to meet the state’s growth demands and still maintain healthy natural ecosystems. Continuing to have adequate and clean flows for sustaining natural water bodies and the natural biological systems that depend upon them will be a growing problem. The water management districts were founded through the wisdom and shrewdness of governors and legislators of both parties over the last 50 years to address these problems on a regional basis. I would apply every measure possible to return the districts to their original mission, along with the authority and resources to do the job … as a start. Then I’d ask for another day to do more.
CFB: Is it possible to protect springs, wetlands, rivers and estuaries in a state that has 19 million residents and is expected to add millions more in coming years?
Vergara: It’ll be an increasingly complex and expensive job, but the state’s economic future is at risk if we do not. People will not continue to hold Florida as a global destination just to visit its malls, endure its sprawl, and fight its crowded highways. Florida is unique within the continental United States because of its tropical and subtropical climatic character and its associated environmental systems. People will not want to visit polluted beaches, fish and swim in slimy lakes and rivers, drink from tainted aquifers or gasp polluted air. So, is it possible to protect and sustain Florida’s unique ecology in light of Florida’s expected future growth? The answer must be, yes, because there is no other acceptable alternative; but to get there, will require the current political direction to be quickly reversed.