By Eric Draper

The time has come to correct a major mistake in Florida’s system of managing water.

Last year, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott cut more than $700 million from the state’s five water management districts. Hundreds of scientists, regulators, land managers and support staff were let go. The districts have sold land, cut back on water supply projects and scrimped on Everglades restoration.

After the cuts, some legislators admitted that they went too far. The Senate has passed SB 1986 to repeal the water management districts’ spending limits and assert additional legislative and executive oversight of the districts’ budgets, which would be a step too far. The governor has countered with a proposal that would limit legislative oversight but also repeal the spending caps. If the Legislature and governor can agree, last year’s mistake likely would be corrected, and the district governing boards once again will be able to plan for and finance clean, abundant water resources.

When Florida faced its first water supply problems nearly 40 years ago, voters gave water management districts taxing power to manage the aquifers, floodplains, springs and rivers that provide our water. Organized around the state’s major watersheds, the water management districts began the long process of restoring the Everglades ecosystem, which provides drinking water to 6 million Floridians, bought up sensitive environmental lands such as the Green Swamp, from which much of Tampa Bay’s water comes, and built projects to protect the vast watershed of the St. Johns River so communities from Orlando to Jacksonville would have flood control and clean water.

However, the water management districts also angered some people. Utilities and some farmers resented being told to conserve water. Developers did not take kindly to being told that building in wetlands required permits and mitigation for damaged wetlands. Water bottlers were not happy about limits on tapping Florida’s springs.

But the offense that made water management districts a target for anti-tax activists was the sin of reserving money to pay for water projects. Money dedicated to build water supply projects near Tampa Bay and restoration projects for the Everglades suddenly became low-hanging fruit for the governor’s campaign promise to cut taxes.

Gov. Scott was correct that the water management districts could take haircuts, but was wrong to cut so much. The Senate’s willingness to repeal the spending caps offers an opportunity to correct last year’s mistake. By lifting the spending caps while maintaining existing limits on property taxes, the Legislature can allow a dependable source of local revenue for water supply. The money helps protect resources such as the Green Swamp and restore watersheds including the Everglades and the St. Johns River.

Most conservationists prefer that SB 1986 be written in a way that does not require direct legislative involvement in water management district budgets. We reason that the citizens appointed to serve without pay on the governing boards are well- qualified to make decisions on budgets, permits and water supply. Water resource decisions are best made at the regional level by people who are affected by those decisions, after allowing for plenty of public input.

The Legislature can mend a mistake and improve public confidence that tax dollars are being spent wisely. Floridians support focusing money on conservation, restoration, natural systems and water supply. It is time for a new start to make sure that our state has the fresh water needed to attract businesses while protecting the springs, rivers and bays that make Florida such a special place.

Eric Draper is executive director of Audubon of Florida.