Sunday, June 22, 2014

Weeki Wachee Preserve – Let people enjoy, not exploit

The Hernando Board of County Commissioners is proposing to build a major recreational facility inside the confines of 11,206 acres purchased (using Florida Forever funds) to preserve the very significant environmental values of the property, now known as the Weeki Wachee Preserve.  This is a letter to the County Administrator, Len Sossamon, suggesting otherwise and setting forth the reasons why.   

June 16, 2014; 3:35 p.m.

I’m sorry we haven’t had the opportunity to chat about the Weeki Wachee Preserve but having read Friday’s paper about the hearing and what’s being proposed, I believe maybe it’s time to offer a few thoughts.  I also appreciate the information about the project received from Ginger Singer. 

I can understand why the Preserve might seem attractive as a location for a facility that Hernando County could use to foster the recovery of its long-hurting economy; spacious, open water and accessible, albeit a bit remote.  But understand, the property has a history directly related to the state’s long and nationally recognized program to protect its unique natural systems from the inevitable impacts of Florida’s growing reputation as a global destination.  Everyone wants sustained economic viability, people world-wide want to live here, and most folks already here want a real balance to be found between the loss of natural habitat that comes with all that “love” and the critical need to protect it. The growing realization, in any case, is that there is the very real possibility if we do not preserve a large part of what’s left of Florida’s natural habitat, we will exploit it and use it until it is destroyed, and the very reasons why Florida has become a global destination in the first place will be destroyed along with it.  I’m reminded of the “Tragedy of the Commons” and the phrase, “death by a thousand cuts”, further defined by Wikipedia as,  “the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable. 

Some of us who are recent arrivals to the state (and I am not referring to you personally) simply may not appreciate all the lessons learned from the past and the cost and sacrifice that previous and current residents have suffered to implement the state’s environmental protection programs that have been carefully evolved over the last 50 years.  It has been a tough and continuous struggle to educate people and raise their appreciation for natural Florida and its importance to the State’s economic future.  Not all land in its natural state, or property that hosts environmentally significant flora and/or fauna, for example, should be considered appropriate for a public facility just because it’s already owned by the public, it’s beautiful, and it’s environmentally bountiful.  In Florida, public education is ephemeral.  Our population is always moving on or dying and being replaced by newcomers.  Thus, maintaining effective appreciation for hard lessons learned is difficult.  It is an unfortunate reality about Florida that its demography is continuously renewing and changing while the importance of Florida’s environment to its economic future is not. 

The 11,206-acre Weekiwachee Preserve was purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1995 from W. L. Cobb Construction Company for $15.1 million.  Six years later in 2001 while I was executive director at the district, the property surrounding Weeki Wachee Springs was purchased from the City of St. Petersburg.  (For years, ownership of the Springs by St. Pete was a very sore bone of contention for the residents of Hernando County because the City had acquired it in the 1930’s as a potential water supply source.)  The Springs parcel of about 400 acres was purchased for around $16 million as part of then-Governor Bush’s “Springs Initiative” using funds from the State’s Florida Forever program, if my memory serves accurately.  Today, the acquisition remains an important component of the state’s strategy to acquire, restore, and protect Florida’s inventory of iconic springs, which are not duplicated in such concentration anywhere else in the world.  Florida’s springs are part of its globally unique natural heritage much as the Grand Canyon is for Arizona. 

The Preserve property was purchased as part of a regional system of conservation lands that extend up to Crystal River Buffer Preserve, including the southernmost coastal hardwood hammocks in western Florida. It provides a rich collage of habitats including several miles of Weeki Wachee River frontage, portions of Mud River, dense hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and pine-covered sand hills. Part of why the acquisition was so important was also because it would help in preventing further degradation of the groundwater flowing to Weeki Wachee Springs and because the area and its habitat is well known for its black bear population.   

With the planned new construction at the Preserve consisting of added restroom facilities at each of four new parking lots with spaces for 400 cars, and an expected usage rate of over a thousand people per day (based upon 1,240 people in the swimming area per day on average and 528 people on average using the beach/sand area), the project plan, in my opinion, appears, without substantial revision, to be inconsistent with the original purposes for acquiring the property and designating it a Preserve.  If the project is ultimately approved as planned, it would also imply that all the concerns expressed in the media by the public and legislature recently over restoring and protecting Florida’s springs is somehow invalid.  As you are aware, there is a growing body of empirical evidence that strongly suggests otherwise. 

While I was at the district, we understood the responsibility and necessity to allow public enjoyment of these unique properties for what they are, without allowing the land to be over utilized and thus changed from the very purposes for which they were purchased.  So, a careful plan for public access and use was developed for every property including the Weeki Wachee Preserve.  Therefore, I believe it is not public use, per se, that is causing the growing objections to the county’s conceptual proposal.  It is the concentration and intensity of the proposed use.  The main access road from Osowaw Boulevard, for example, is smack dab through the heart of the corridor black bears need for their normal foraging, ranging and maintenance of the specie.  Consequently, while the road may be marginally acceptable for maintenance purposes, it would not be acceptable as a main entrance with the anticipated heavy daily usage. 

I believe there may be ways for some degree of increased usage to be allowed in the lake area, but the fact remains it was purchased and established as a Preserve for very specific reasons, reasons that are more critical today than they ever were.  SWFWMD clearly has an obligation to insure that any proposed public uses fall within the constraints contained in the original state authorization to purchase the property using Florida Forever funds.  This proposal, as I understand it, may very well exceed those constraints.  It needs to be confirmed one way or the other. 

You may know that SWFWMD has partnered on several occasions with Hernando County to allow its residents access and use of district-owned public lands within the county such as Bayport Park and Weeki Wachee Springs StatePark.  It also instigated and funded through the now dismantled Coastal Rivers Basin Board of the District the location and construction of an Environmental Education Center on park land just west of the Weeki WacheeSprings on Bayport Road.  Points being, two environmental educational centers seem excessive for the actual use that can be expected so why not focus on the one that already exists, and, the District is always interested in working with local partners in a manner that is consistent with its statutory responsibilities. 

Finally, Len, it appears that the education and tourism aspects of the project are in name only.   From what I can tell (and my understanding of the project is admittedly limited), it will actually be just a very large recreational complex intended to bring such attendance to the venue that, in turn, jobs and economic development will be fostered on the western end of the county (which is not certain), and the reason it’s being proposed in the Preserve is because state funding is available, the land is cheap, i.e. free (if SWFWMD agrees) and it has water features.  These are not reasons enough in my opinion to forsake the original important purposes for which the land was acquired on behalf of Florida’s greater public, Florida’s natural environment and Florida’s long-term economic future. 

Consequently, I recommend the county seek to locate the project elsewhere or use the money to fund true economic development by making the funds available perhaps as seed money to develop and support new private business enterprises.  In that area on the coast, such enterprises might consist, for example, of aquaculture or some other coastal-oriented activity appropriate for private land uses and privately sponsored economic development. 

I appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts. 




Saturday, June 7, 2014

Note from Senator Alan Hays; and a response

After reading SWFWMDmatters post, “Scott using your tax dollars to get re-elected; FCC's Response to budget signing,” Florida Senator Alan Hays sent me a note.  Below is the note, and after that, my response.

(The Senator’s note was sent via his Senate office email and is thus public record, as is my response.)
Here’s the Senator’s note (verbatim):
-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, June 03, 2014 9:34 PM
To: Emilio Vergara
Subject: RE: Scott using your tax dollars to get re-elected; FCC's Response to budget signing (S)

Senator Alan Hays, DMD
District 11
I received your email and I disagree very strongly with almost everything in it.  I'd invite you to come to Tallahassee and observe the budget process.  I have chaired one of the appropriations sub committees in the Senate for the last four years.  I am the chairman of the Appropriations Sub-Committee for General Government.  My committee oversees the entire DEP budget along with the budget of the Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Commisson
I expect you consider me to be a part of the problem, but I am quite proud of the job we in the legislature have done in these four sessions.  While many in the environmental community, like your self, are critical of our results, I stand as a proud Senator who definitely does like the environment and I am not going to quietly be labeled otherwise.  We balanced the Florida budget every year without raising taxes and without going into debt.  As a matter of fact, our State debt has been reduced by more than $3 Billion!!  Contrary to the thinking of many, we do have priorities other than buying land.  Just the budgets for healthcare and education alone, comprise more than 65% of the entire budget!!  Which of those would you suggest we reduce?
I have three questions for you.....1.  How much Florida land is currently owned by governmental agencies for conservation purposes?  2.  How much Florida land do you think the state should own for conservation purposes?  3.  How much money would you have appropriated for environmental purposes in this recently passed budget?
I hope you realize I don't mind a civil discussion of the facts but I do want the entire discussion to be factually based.

D. Alan Hays, DMD
State Senator, District 11


Here's the response (verbatim):

-----Original Message-----
From: Emilio Vergara <>
Sent: Fri, Jun 6, 2014 9:39 am

Subject: RE: Scott using your tax dollars to get re-elected; FCC's Response to budget signing (S)
Dear Senator Hays, 
Thank you for your note and the invitation for me to see the legislative budget process that you’d offer, but I’ve been there and seen it many times.  I was never impressed by how money flows so freely for political rather than public purposes there.  
As you suggest, I’ve tried here to be civil but also direct.  I am offering assertions that you likely do not agree with but I do so anyway in hopes of at least a little success at being persuasive. 
I believe you have personally made some very real and potentially damaging legislative proposals as a state senator; decisions and positions that reflect either a serious lack of knowledge of physical and natural Florida, acceptance of bad advice, or simply a lack of good judgment.  In any case, it is a difficult state of Florida affairs when such judgment finds itself at the levels of Florida’s government you find yourself.   
Here are several examples: 
Example One: Your proposal to change the definition of Ordinary High Water Line as it is defined in state law to demark where state sovereignty ownership ends and private ownership begins.  
You proposed a bill that you said simply clarified the statutory definition when in actuality it would have transferred hundreds of thousands of sensitive wetland and waterfront sovereignty acres to private landowners with no compensation to the public.  Your defense of the bill indicated you had not completed a serious assessment or gained a full understanding of the impact that passage of the bill would have upon the interests of the public you serve.  It would, for example, have disrupted centuries of public use and important public purposes represented by those acres, and handed them to adjacent landowners along with a number of inestimably valuable property rights the new owners did not have before.  Had the bill passed, the public would have been denied the use and purpose of those important acres while greatly expanding the potential use and purpose for the new property owners, gratuitously.  
Your agreement to sponsor and promote such an egregious idea was, respectfully, irresponsible and certainly not something a person who was elected to serve public interests and  “likes” the environment, would find compatible with sincere and effective stewardship of the State’s unique and fragile environmental heritage.  Perhaps you’d care to share the true genesis of the idea with us.   Was it in anyway a broad appeal from many of your constituents?  
Example Two:  Your current insistence that since there are X amount of conservation acres in public ownership, X acres are enough and there is no reason for more.   
This seems to be a conclusion based upon numbers only and a rather dogmatic position perhaps grounded in some ill-advised tea party tenet.  Any true assessment of how much of Florida’s remaining natural environment needs to be protected and preserved must include an accurate understanding of the critical role Florida’s natural environment plays in its economic future.
To answer the question in your note regarding the numbers and to underscore the enormous importance of Florida’s natural character, the State of Florida consists of about 45,650,000 acres of land and water including 825 miles of sandy beaches, 7,700 lakes, 12,650 miles of streams, 1,350 miles of general coastline, 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline, and 8,426 miles of detailed shoreline, according to DEP.  Of this area: 
“… federal agencies manage a little over 4 million acres of conservation lands, the state and water management districts manage approximately 4.9 million acres of conservation lands, and local governments manage about 460,000 acres of conservation lands. Collectively, 9,366,499 acres of public lands are managed for conservation purposes, including some military and school lands that serve conservation purposes, even though their primary purpose is not conservation. In addition, there are 573,551 acres of acquired Conservation Easements.        ( 

Note that the term “managed” does not necessarily mean publically owned by agencies of Florida. 
These numbers represent the “X” you propose is enough.  What the numbers do not tell us is the answer to these questions:  
1.)   Can we afford to say we have enough land conserved and that all remaining natural land in Florida should be available for exploitation and development to the point it will no longer be able to offer the values and benefits that natural conditions provide? 
2.)  Will the loss of all the remaining natural land in Florida and the related values and benefits it cumulatively provides forever change the State’s unique natural character to the extent that the very reasons so many people desire to visit, live, play and/or work here is significantly diminished?  
3.)  Do we know with virtual certainty that if we suspend all further acquisition of environmentally significant lands that we will not be allowing by purposeful design the destruction and loss of, in perpetuity, the State’s most important economic attributes?  
4.)  Since the state has known for several decades that good will and regulations alone are not sufficient to protect Florida’s water and environmental resources, what more effective alternative is there than acquisition of land via fee simple or conservation easement? 
My point is, one cannot look at just numbers and say X acres is enough to conserve.  The more appropriate and critically important question is, have we achieved a valid balance between that which must be preserved of Florida’s natural environment to sustain its global appeal and thus its long term economic viability?  There are many, many studies and reports by water management districts and state agencies which emphatically state additional lands need to be conserved to achieve specified objectives that serve this overarching goal. 
Again, Senator, any support and promotion of the idea that enough of Florida’s environmentally sensitive land has been and will be forever conserved is, frankly, irresponsible and certainly not something a person who “likes” the environment would find compatible with serious and effective stewardship of the State’s unique natural heritage. 
Example Three: Your apparent pride in cutting taxes and contention that doing so is in all ways good government. 
This idea is just too simplistic to be functionally valuable.  Cutting taxes for its own sake is not good government.  It can and does wield indiscriminate and destructive impacts upon many good things the people you represent desire and need and which are fundable under current economic circumstances.
While cutting taxes using triage judgment during a recession is a given and arguably the appropriate thing to do, the tea party doctrine that would starve government out of existence by cutting taxes indiscriminately is a tragically dangerous position.  I’m not saying it’s one you hold but it would appear to be the mindset of the legislature, of which you were and are by your own submission a prominent member, when it perpetrated its tax cutting frenzy upon the State’s environmental protection agencies and particularly the water management districts. 
When you arbitrarily reduced the districts’ taxing capacities, unrealistically limited the sizes of their budgets and effectively took unconstitutional control of their ad valorem taxing authority, you did so without any apparent regard for the impact it would have upon the State’s ability to carry out its constitutional and statutory responsibility to protect the environment.  Now they struggle to find enough funds to do the important work of properly and effectively managing the State’s water resources as well as executing many of the states statutory responsibilities it has delegated to them.  And the legislature, by doing so, has put itself in the position of having to find funding for many projects and programs that historically could have been funded by the districts own ad valorem taxing authority, which is a position the legislature was trying to avoid when it delegated the programs to the districts in the first place. 
I would also venture to say that a majority of Florida citizens do not mind paying a few dollars each year for water resource management and protection and, given the choice, would not mind paying a few dollars more for greater assurances of clean, plentiful water and a healthy natural environment. 
The process of reducing the districts’ ability to do their jobs effectively included the forced and totally unprofessional dismissal by Tallahassee directive of hundreds of scientists and literally thousands of years of scientific institutional knowledge, which was not done to lower any state tax because water districts do not levy a state tax. It was done solely to eviscerate the State’s ability to carry out effective environmental protection that had been statutorily carefully evolved over 50 years by many responsible leaders of both parties.  It was clearly also done at the behest of such special interests as members of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the mining industry, big agriculture, electric power generating companies, land developers and others who would stand to benefit by reduced protection for the State’s natural systems.  Your support of all this, Senator, frankly, does not exactly comport with your contention that you “like” the environment. 
Regarding what funding might have been made for the environment this year as opposed to, for example, education and healthcare, if I recall correctly there was a $1.2 billion revenue excess over last year which resulted in a plethora of local projects totaling around $88 million, that the media has reported were not vetted through the normal legislative budgeting process.  Somewhere in that $1,200,000,000 windfall, there certainly could have been more than what was ultimate designated for environmental purposes without impacting what was appropriated for healthcare and education.  It would not have been, as you suggest, a choice between one or the other.  Even if many of the local projects funded are worthwhile, since the water management districts have the legal responsibility, experience and authority for managing and protection water resources, it would have been more appropriate for the Legislature to have provided the $88 million to the districts rather than preempting them and let them do their jobs. 
In any case, the actual amount of funding that might be reasonable for environmental purposes - given the $1.2 billion revenue windfall and the importance of a viable and sustained environment to the future of the state - $500 million would not have been an excessive amount.  As it stands now, you provided $165 million for The Everglades, $30 million for springs restoration and $17.5 million for environmental land purchases for a total of $212.5 million.  In other words, if you would return the funding capacity you have removed from the water management districts over the last 3 years, you could easily add another $200-$300 million to that state amount for the environment and still have the balance you now have for the other priorities you mention. 
Senator, I’m aware you were a sponsor of the so-called Springs Protection Bill, SB 1576, which is something you should surely be proud of.  As you know, the House kicked the opportunity to take significant action to begin repairing Florida’s declining springs to next year when Speaker Weatherford effectively killed any chance the bill had for consideration by the House.  The concern now will be, as Rep. Crisafulli takes the helm, what does he have in mind when he refers to the need to focus on new water policy next session.  It is my sincerest hope that your “definite” like of the environment will allow you to resist further weakening of the State’s capacity and will to protect its extraordinary natural heritage and motivate you to look once again to the extraordinary tools you already have for achieving what the state needs in terms of natural resource management and water availability for the future. 
Senator, you know that Florida’s water and natural resources are in serious peril.  The question is – what are you going to do about it?  More tax cuts, further suppression of Florida’s environmental protection mechanisms, and the continuing the apparent new-normal of prioritizing special interests over public interests will not suffice.  In any case, real and effective action is needed, and quickly.
Thank you for your comments and this opportunity to share a few thoughts. 

(Over 166,000 pageviews as of 06-03-2014) 


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Scott using your tax dollars to get re-elected; FCC's Response to budget signing

Rick Scott signed the state’s budget for 2014-15 yesterday including rewards galore for his republican buddies who salted it heavily with election year goodies for the home boys.  You can count it as major political maneuvering and a down payment on his next election.  The difference between his buying his election four years ago with $74 million of his own cash and this one is, this time he’s using your taxes dollars to do it.

It’s a bit disgusting the way state republicans, after three years of gutting the state’s ability to manage and protect its natural resources because, they said, the state had no money and had to tighten its belt, they are now funding a boat load of local feel-good projects designed to capture your warm and fuzzies, and your vote in November.
It’s so obvious and so disingenuous that, as I said, it’s disgusting … and yet, will you vote for him nevertheless?
If you do, you will be endorsing one of the most destructive periods in Florida’s recent history in terms of the harm that will be done to Florida’s natural systems and, thus, to its long term economic future and quality of life.  You will also be rewarding those who are responsible for dismantling the state’s long term planning ability leaving the state’s future to be controlled and directed by land developers, phosphate and rock miners, power companies and those who represent themselves as farmers but who are often times nothing more than foreign industrial magnates looking to make greater profits by further exploiting what’s left of natural Florida.
As a voting public, I know long-term thinking isn’t a strong suit of ours but November will be a critical decision point.  Choose Rick Scott and the next four years will forever cast in flint-hard stone the course he has set, which is to serve only those special interests whose sole focus is making a return for shareholders with no regard for the impact it will have on where you and I live, where our children will live, and where their children will.
The Florida Conservation Coalition is one of the most responsible, highly respected and influential environmental groups in Florida because it is affiliated with many of the state’s most prestigious environmental organizations and thousands of individuals including former Governor and U. S. Senator, Bob Graham. 
Yesterday it published a response to the $77 billion state budget Rick Scott signed the same day.  The FCC was established and is now lead by some of the most dedicated and sincere people, frankly, that I’ve had the honor to know in my 40-plus years of involvement with natural resource management in Florida.  The response is remarkable because it is very carefully written to reflect the intense dedication the organization has toward being truthful, accurate and tough; a complex and difficult task given the diverse nature of its many affiliated members and supporters whose often disparate positions must be respected.
I urge you to read it.  It is clearly a signal that this state’s environmental community is feeling frustration, disappointment and certainly anger, that is perhaps too well suppressed.  I hope it will charge you with the feeling that we cannot sit still and be quiet, because if it doesn’t, the course of intentional environmental neglect Rick Scott has set for Florida will forever change the tremendous natural heritage it has so generously afforded us, and we will all be at fault.
Here’s the FCC’s response:  (Find the published version HERE)
Florida Conservation Coalition Response to Governor’s Budget Signing
By signing the FY 2015 budget Governor Rick Scott may attempt to take credit for providing historic levels of funding for Florida’s springs and the Everglades.  In doing so, however, he will ignore the massive budget cuts to water protection agencies and land conservation projects brought on by his administration and the Legislature.
Governor Scott was elected on the idea of reducing the size and cost of government. This focus has been evident since the Governor signed his first budget in 2011, in which he vetoed the entire $305 million annual appropriation for Florida Forever and bragged of cutting $700 million more from Florida’s five water management districts.
Cuts to the Suwannee River and Northwest Florida Water Management District budgets resulted in those two agencies postponing setting minimum flows for springs. Cuts to the South Florida Water Management District, exceeding $200 million, caused the agency to reconsider investments in the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs and other Everglades clean-up work. These are the very same projects that the current administration and Legislature are now funding in this year’s budget, after several years of needless delay.
Unfortunately, in light of these actions, claims that our freshwater springs and the renowned Everglades are being saved by this budget may appropriately be viewed as election year efforts to make voters forget the effects that previous budget cuts and staff reductions have had on the programs and agencies responsible for the health of our waters and protection of our natural lands.
To judge the current administration’s commitment to environmental protection, recent spending claims have to be weighed against past actions: Florida’s FY 2008 budget included $200 million for the Everglades and the Northern Everglades, in addition to the more than $100 million spent that year on Everglades projects by the South Florida Water Management District from its own budget. Additionally, during the previous administration, the South Florida Water Management District spent more than $500 million in one year buying land that will be used in a program to expand water treatment and storage. 
Along with cutting water management district budgets, Governor Scott has consistently refused to propose anything but minimal funding for the state’s land acquisition programs which include projects to protect Florida’s springs and buy at-risk wetlands and panther habitat in the Everglades. Previously, in a single year, the Florida Forever program spent approximately $70 million on protecting land that recharges Silver Springs, more than the entire statewide appropriation for Florida Forever this year.
Prior to 2011, thirty percent of Florida Forever program funds were allocated to the water management districts to purchase land to recharge water supplies, store and treat floodwaters and protect our most vulnerable springs and rivers.  This year, however, Florida Forever allocations to water management districts to protect water resources were not included in the Governor’s budget.  Instead the districts were allocated $20 million in previously appropriated funds for land conservation.
Compared to previous budgets by this administration, this one shows modest increases in conservation funding. That said, it pales in comparison to the funding and commitments to Florida’s water and land resources of past administrations.