OUR GULF ECOSYSTEM
RALF BROOKES late last year and accidentally hooked his thumb just under the nail, as fishermen will occasionally do. He pulled the hook out in a matter of seconds and got the line back in the water — the Caloosahatchee River, that magnificent but tainted 67-mile-long stream flowing west from Lake Okeechobee to emerge at San Carlos Bay, near Sanibel Island on the Gulf of Mexico.
“I thought nothing of it at the time,” he recalls.
But that would change as a mycobacteria related to tuberculosis, dormant for eight weeks after infecting him from river water on the fishhook, suddenly began to work its malfeasant magic. His thumb swelled at the knuckle to the size of a walnut, threatening its existence, doctors told him.
The attitudes and inclinations of the state’s top water managers in Tallahassee have changed, too, as they concluded that the Department of Environmental Protection and the water management districts obligated to prevent such water-borne illnesses were swollen with too much money and personnel.
Critics of the state government’s recent philosophy of water management are increasingly clamorous.
The federal Clean Water Act of 1980 required Florida to make its waters safe for both swimming and fishing by 1985. But that still hasn’t happened, and the new approach of top government officials won’t help it happen, either, they say.
Officials counter that the spare approach to industry regulation is more efficient, more friendly to business and the economy, and just as effective.
Meanwhile, the water keeps flowing, more or less.
Mr. Brookes’ favorite fishing hole — the Caloosahatchee — is only one of seven major watersheds in the Southwest region affected both by nature and man.
Each is braided into an intimate tapestry that marries the smallest gambusia schooling above grass beds in up-river shallows to palm-sized bluegills, blue crabs and bass, to leopard frogs and water snakes, to snook and redfish, otters and alligators, kingfishers, ibises, cormorants, anhingas, herons and gulls, to pelicans, ospreys and eagles, and to the vast gulf ecosystem so deeply addicted to fresh water — a tapestry that marries all of that, in turn, to each citrus grove and tomato field and cow herd and phosphate mine, to every gasoline-powered boat, each poop-preserving septic tank and every pill-popping senior, to each golf course and sewage treatment plant, and to the smallest or largest tourist-industry hotels, with their flushing toilets and running showers and cycling swimming pools.
One fact is not in dispute: Every molecule is connected, from Tallahassee to the Ten Thousand Islands. And none would exist here without that immense tapestry. But each water user, in turn, leans ambitiously against the system like a happy drunk against an old tree with many branches.
North of the Caloosahatchee stretches the Peace River basin. To its south and straddling Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties, lie the other five great watersheds of the region: San Carlos Bay, Estero Bay, Corkscrew Swamp, Big Cypress Swamp, and the Ten Thousand Islands.
Each is dwarfed by but wedded to what is arguably the greatest single watershed in North America: the Everglades, or “River of Grass.”
All of them fall in part or whole into the purview of the 16-county South Florida Water Management District, one of the largest single districts in the nation. And by extension they become the responsibility of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP oversees Florida’s water management districts. The agency is accountable both for the quantity and quality of water available to almost 19 million Sunshine State residents. Mr. Brookes is only one of those — and only one of 1.2 million people living with each other in the 4,200-squaremile southwest region of the state.
Like all of them and everything else, however — human, flora or fauna — he must also live with the decisions of water managers in Tallahassee.
A new way of doing things
About 18 months before Mr. Brookes went fishing and hooked himself, in January of 2011, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Herschel Vinyard to lead the DEP, while simultaneously dismantling or downsizing various other arms of state government. Then with Mr. Vinyard, he managed the significant reduction in money, staff and independence of Florida’s water management districts.
“In the past, supervision of the water management districts has been somewhat lighthanded by the DEP,” says Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, based in Naples. “But a major change in the last two years is that it’s been heavy-handed. Particularly, there has been an enormous cutback in staffing. The water management districts had their budgets cut by over 33 percent in the first year of the Scott administration. As a result, there were large-scale layoffs.”
By 2010, when Gov. Scott took office, the budget for the South Florida Water Management District had grown to $1.5 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2006. The money helped pay not only for regulation of industry and urban uses, but for the myriad other tasks assigned to the district, including academic research designed to protect both water quantity and quality.
By 2012, however, the budget for the district had been slashed by almost two-thirds, to $576 million. And this year (fiscal year 2013), it comes in at $567.3 million.
One demonstrable effect of this, says Mr. McElwaine, is a significantly more lax system of permit review, and less regulation of the various water users.
Other numbers show the change in direction, too. The DEP’s hazardous waste program, for example, assessed almost $1.2 million in penalties in 2008, and $2.3 million in 2010.
Then Gov. Scott took office and Mr. Vinyard stepped into the DEP. Last year, the program managed only about $331,000 in penalties, state numbers show. In the Southwest region, where almost $750,000 in penalties were levied in 2010, the figure was only $89,000 in 2012.
But officials argue that government, especially in the water management districts, had become bloated and inefficient.
“The agencies were very large, and there were a lot of repetitive positions,” notes Dan DeLisi, a governing board member of the South Florida Water Management District appointed by Gov. Scott. Mr. DeLisi is also co-owner of a land use and civil engineering firm, DeLisi Fitzgerald Inc..
“After the layoffs at the water management district, we found that by focusing in on our core mission and not doing all those tangential things we were doing, we were able to be more creative with our resources and make them work.
“The biggest single example is the water quality settlement we entered into with the federal government.”
In that case, the EPA agreed to enforce stricter nutrient pollution standards in the Everglades, south of Lake Okeechobee.
That settlement, brokered by federal officials in the Obama administration and state officials in the Scott administration, was something no previous governments of any political stripe could do, Mr. DeLisi notes — including the federal and state governments once managed in tandem by the Bush brothers, President George W. Bush and his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
The settlement saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, he adds.
Unfortunately, the EPA’s November agreement to enforce much stricter nutrient standards for 85 percent of Florida’s inland waters, including those of the Southwest region’s great watersheds, is now in question, water advocates say.
Late last week at meetings in Tampa, federal EPA officials told Mr. Vinyard and members of Gov. Scott’s administration that if the state DEP wishes to rewrite the weaker nutrient pollution standards for central Florida waters so they apply to the entire state, the EPA will accept those numbers statewide.
Water advocates were outraged.
“We’re very worried,” says the Conservancy’s Mr. McElwaine.
If the EPA reneges on that settlement agreement, he adds, the Conservancy, along with EarthJustice and other defenders of clean water, will take the EPA back to court.
If private industry methods are the flavor of the day, Herschel Vinyard is the right spoon to dish them out, observers acknowledge.
Mr. Vinyard had been a businessman who served as director of business operations at BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards, and sat on the boards of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturer’s Association of Florida and the Jacksonville Port Authority.
About the time Mr. Brookes hooked his thumb while dipping a line in the Caloosahatchee — roughly six months ago — Mr. Vinyard began to lay off veteran employees of the DEP. Most had worked in its regulatory arm. He replaced them in some cases with peo- ple from the companies and corporations the DEP regulates, as critics and sometimes even former allies of the deregulation point out.
Mr. Vinyard started that process only eight weeks after his appointment by the governor, when he brought Jeff Littlejohn into the DEP as number two man, the deputy secretary of regulatory programs.
Mr. Littlejohn’s father, Chuck Littlejohn, is a lobbyist whose company’s clients include the Plum Creek Timber Company, with 520,000 acres of Florida Timber; Duda & Sons Inc., a self-characterized Christian company that owns tens of thousands of acres in Florida; and — according to a report in the Broward- Palm Beach New Times — the Florida Land Council, the Florida Ports Council, and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, all of whom could be deeply affected by DEP policy.
Mr. Littlejohn’s mother also works at the family lobbying firm, known as Littlejohn, Mann & Associates.
Paula Dockery, a 16-year former Republican state senator from Lakeland, has become a critic of Mr. Vinyard, Gov. Scott, and by extension her own party’s leadership. She presented her concerns about the altered state of affairs and Mr. Vinyard’s new direction in water management in a recent letter to the Miami Herald: “Now a major cleaning out of veteran employees puts the state’s environment in further and potentially irreversible peril. Poor planning decisions lead to long-term and costly damage,” she wrote.
“This has come about on top of the dissolution — during the governor’s first year in office — of the Department of Community Affairs and the demise of Florida’s growth management laws that protected our resources while limiting costly growth.”
Given the size of the DEP — now just over 3,000 employees — 58 layoffs doesn’t seem like much, and isn’t in sheer numbers: about 1.5 percent, officials point out.
Besides, says Pat Gillespie, a DEP spokesman, the layoffs were made with an eye to the “core mission.”
He offered the comments in a written statement made after sharp criticism of the layoffs.
“The department’s recent reorganizations were conducted after monthslong assessments of procedures and processes as well as staffing and workload levels. The process has included thoughtful assessments to implement measures that increase the effectiveness of reaching the department’s core mission of protecting environmental and human health. No programs or core functions have been eliminated and the department’s level of service will not be compromised. By reorganizing districts and divisions, leadership eliminated levels of bureaucracy that improve communication, created a stronger employee to supervisor ratio and combined or elevated similar functions to become more efficient and consistent.”
Kinder, gentler policing
Under Gov. Scott and Mr. Vinyard, the DEP became the good cop rather than the bad cop, seeking to work with, rather than against, industries and businesses whose ambitions could alter water quality and environment, officials say.
That had been the idea, in part, of Gary Colecchio, who was hired into the DEP to oversee about 200 engineers and others from the Southwest (Tampa) office in mid-2011. But he resigned almost a year later because, he says, “I couldn’t put my best people into the field.”
As Mr. Colecchio describes it, the DEP is a cop — a policing agency. Not a protection agency.
“It has only a single mission, and that mission is environmental regulation mandated through state law or by delegation from federal authority — the Clean Water/Clean Air Act and others. That’s different from (the much more varied tasks) of the water management districts.”
In his mind, the reduction in size and force of water management districts not only helped matters, but should have gone further, he says.
Meanwhile, “the DEP — and no one will ever tell you this — is a policing agency. It’s not a protection agency. It licenses pollution. It doesn’t protect the environment. And you license pollution in accordance with criteria established by state or federal authority.”
Among those the DEP must police are agricultural corporations, sewage and water treatment corporations, development corporations, mining corporations, and incorporated cities and towns, all of whom rely on water and can alter its quality or reduce its quantity.
How the DEP does that, and whether it is doing it properly, is now the key question for many.
“How this will affect us in the future is the $64,000 question,” surmises Bill Hammond, a former governing board member of the South Florida Water Management District.
“The biggest single thing the Scott administration has done is pull the key decision-making and guidance and policy direction to Tallahassee, and taken it away from the governing board the governor himself appointed.”
The practical effect of this change in management style — the effect on permitting and regulating — is laxity, according to many observers and water resource apologists.
And it starts with a business mindset, says Jerry Phillips, who directs the Florida arm of PEER, or Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national nonprofit.
“You can no longer call a permittee a permittee, now you have to call them a ‘stakeholder’ or ‘customers.’ This was a big change within the DEP. That mindset started creeping in, in the 1990s. And it’s blossomed under Scott.
“You tell the regulator, ‘Your job is not now to enforce. Your job is to go in and sit down with the business and show them how to comply with their permit.’”
But the nature of the beast is oppositional, not friendly, he argues.
When regulators befriend industry, “the problem is, it’s a form of welfare paid for by taxpayers, who should not have to do that. Most of those industries have attorneys representing them. When they file an application, they do it through an engineer. So they have an attorney, they have an engineer, and they already know how it’s supposed to be operated (under federal and state water and environmental regulations).”
Thus, he concludes, industry should meet the standards or be regulated by fines that ultimately protect all of us — not merely be warned how to do the minimum, then given a friendly farewell pat on the back.
As the layoffs at the DEP began and the debate was heating up, Mr. Brookes concluded his fishing trip, slapped a bandage on his thumb, and went home.
Eight weeks passed, he recalls matter of-factly.
But it wasn’t until the thumb had become painfully swollen that doctors finally discovered his hand had been infected by water from the river.
If he wanted to keep the thumb and salvage his hand, they told him, the only treatment was surgery, coupled with an antibiotic used to treat patients suffering from tuberculosis.
As it turns out, Mr. Brookes is an environmental lawyer. He does not blame Gov. Rick Scott or Mr. Vinyard for the dangerous infection in his thumb, he says.
Instead, he blames them for not helping to find a solution that would prevent that mycobacteria from infecting someone else.
“The DEP under Herschel Vinyard and Gov. Scott is trying to control water managers and loosen the regulations on quality,” Mr. Brookes concludes.
“So the DEP has been transformed into a water czar. It’s reined in water management districts. It’s decimated their budgets.
“And their appointments to the governing boards and some DEP positions have been people from industry, from big agriculture — the polluters, the part of the industry regulated by district governing boards.”
That’s just not right, he insists, echoing other voices, too.
So now, with his thumbs up, his long effort to clean up the Caloosahatchee River Basin and other Florida water systems has become a personal fight, not simply a professional obligation.
Arguably, it has become a fight for all of us, too. ¦