The time has come to correct a major mistake in Florida’s system of managing water resources.
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.
Since then, the water districts have moved to sell off public lands, cut back on water supply projects and scrimped on Everglades restoration.
Some legislators have acknowledged that they went too far.
Now the Florida Senate has proposed to repeal the water management district’s spending limits while still capping the districts’ ability to levy property taxes.
It seems likely that the mistake will be corrected and the water management district governing boards will once again be able to plan for and finance clean and abundant water resources.
Financing our blue and green infrastructure, as water resources often are called, is just as important as roads, schools and health care.
When Florida faced its first water supply problems almost 40 years ago, voters gave the water management districts the power to tax to pay to manage the aquifers, floodplains, springs and rivers that provide our water supplies.
Organized around the state’s major watersheds, the water management districts did exactly what was expected.
Bought up sensitive environmental lands such as the Green Swamp, from which much of Tampa Bay’s water comes.
Began the long process of restoring the Everglades ecosystem, which provides drinking water to 6 million Floridians.
Built projects to protect the vast watershed of the St. Johns River so communities from Orlando to Jacksonville would enjoy the benefits of both flood control and clean water.
However, the water management districts also made some people angry. Utilities and some large farmers hated being told to conserve water. Developers did not take kindly to being told that building in wetlands required permits or replacing damaged wetlands. Water bottlers were not happy about limits on tapping Florida’s springs.
But the real offense, the one that made water management districts a target for tea party activists, was the sin of holding money in reserve to pay for water projects. Funds reserved to build water supply projects near Tampa Bay and restoration projects for the Everglades suddenly became the low hanging fruit for the governor’s campaign promise to cut taxes.
When he signed the law SB 2142 that put the cuts into effect his agency, leaders cheered the result as a promise delivered. Scott was correct that the water management districts could take haircuts.
But he was wrong to cut so deep.
Now the Florida Senate’s willingness to repeal the spending caps and replace them with a new budget process offers an opportunity to correct a mistake and allow water management districts to assume the responsibility for financing the protection and use of Florida’s water resources.
By lifting the spending caps while retaining limits on overall taxing authority, the Legislature can provide a dependable source of local revenue for the water supply. The money helps protect water sources such as the Green Swamp and restore watersheds including the Everglades and the St. Johns River.
The Legislature can both 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 new business and jobs while protecting the springs, rivers and bays that makes Florida such a special place.