Conservation Report January 2016

Conservation Report

By Whitey Markle


At the event called, ”An Evening at Silver Springs”, benefitting the Florida Springs Institute in Ocala on Dec.11th, the Guest Speaker was Sonny Vergara, former Executive Director of the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Vergara’s comments were based on his vast experience as Executive Director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the St. Johns River Water Management District and very interesting. His description of the history of Florida’s water management policy and its developmental process were candid from the inside viewpoint.  A remarkable paragraph related to the present governor’s influence on state growth management policy (including subsequent water management). To paraphrase, Vergara said the governors before Rick Scott tended to stay within the guidelines of the Florida statutes and the rules developed by the respective agencies. But, according to Vergara, this governor, who very few people knew much about, was elected from virtually “out of nowhere” over a weak opponent by a fervent Tea Party voting wave in an off year for elections (2010).  As soon as he was elected, the heads began to roll.

The Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw Florida’s growth management, was beheaded and retitled, “The Department of Economic Opportunity,” and reconfigured to assist in what will likely become the biggest development and expansion of population in Florida for decades. Then came the further dismantling of the Water Management District and Department of Environmental Protection staff.  Most scientists were eliminated and the administrations were packed with campaign donors and related special interest groups (like hunters and developers).

Science-based decision-making became a thing of the past overnight. And the situation has worsened over the next 4 years.  Due to poor planning and funding cuts in the name of “Governmental efficiency”, infrastructure is now lagging far behind the rapid population growth.
One of the biggest infrastructure problems at present is the road system. I-75 is being scorned as “overcrowded” and in need of “relief”. Actually the Interstate Highway system was originally designed to link all of the states in the continent together, not to be commuter roads as they have evolved.  In fact, the good governor has appointed his buddies to oversee the I-75 Relief Task Force, which includes the Suncoast Parkway monstrosity. The first “extension” of the Parkway is dangerously and sloppily planned to dissect several critical wildlife resources including the Chassahowitzka-Ocala Bear corridor and the Homosassa Springs wellfields.  It appears that, regardless of public questioning and protest, the I-75 relief task force is moving full bore with the governor’s orders: “Move the new people into the wild lands where it is cheap to build and cheap to live (and profitable for my donors, like St. Joe and Plum Creek)”.  The second extension is being designed as we speak, in the dark as usual, and nobody I’ve asked has a clue exactly where it is going. And nobody will know until the plans are complete and approved (I’ve asked a plenty of state bureaucrats and local politicians with absolutely no answers).  Every person on the “Task Force” is either one of the governor’s donors or is plum eat up with the Growth disease. As Representative Jimmy T. Smith (R) told me last month, “We‘ve got good growth management….We are growing everywhere”.

Apparently even The Florida Wildlife Commission is in the action for Growth. When asked about some critical wildlife corridor lands that were on the surplus lands list last spring, an FWC land manager told me that those lands were “for development”. I mean, this government doesn’t even pretend to think about our environment nor about the consequences development will bring to it. Service to the public comes last under this government and development comes first.

The same attitude exists in the other state government bodies too. The Public Service Commission in Florida is one of the few that are appointed by the governor as opposed to being elected. So now Florida is one of the few states that don’t have an incentive program for home solar energy. And we saw what happened to the money ratepayers paid up front for Duke Energy to build the new Nuke plant that doesn’t exist. The Duke Energy stockholders got the money. How did it get this way? Well, I personally didn’t think the growthers could be so bold so quickly. And we’ve got 3 more agonizing years ahead to the next gubernatorial election, which likely will elect Adam Putnam as governor. We’re in trouble, big time!

Another of Vergara’s comments in concluding his speech was that Florida’s economy depends on continual growth. Unfortunately that thesis exists throughout the political community.

Alachua County Commissioner and supposed “environmentalist” Robert Hutchinson did an about face in the Hawthorne Annexation issue last week. Hutchinson, who worked as consultant for Plum Creek’s Envision Alachua campaign before being elected, said – after voting with Commissioners Lee Pinkoson and Chuck Chestnut against appealing the annexation on legal grounds – that he regretted “losing many friends”  over the vote.  Perhaps “Hutch” sees a clear view of his political future and perhaps it was worth turning on his friends over the deal that opens the door to the development of some 60,000 acres of eastern Alachua County that is owned by his previous employer. Perhaps it was worth his reputation as an “environmental leader”. As executive Director of the Alachua Conservation Trust, Hutch was able to amass tens of thousands of acres with donors’ money and manipulate some sketchy deals in the meantime with both Frank Stronach (Adena Springs/Sleepy Creek water grabs) and Plum Creek in eastern Alachua County. Is this a valid example of modern-day politicians? He should be ashamed. Historically, every annexation in Alachua County that violated the comprehensive plan has been appealed for legal relief.  But not in Hawthorne. There is something apparently different in this case.. Plum Creek is what’s different.  Lots of influence and lots of misleading and outright false information. Lots of weak leadership. So this illegal annexation won’t be appealed and Envision will destroy the wildlands to the East.  The wildlife corridor that will be destroyed, the pollution of Gainesville’s water supply, the Murphy well fields and Hawthorne’s greatest asset, Lake Lochloosa, and the obnoxious sprawling development that will result from this decision will exemplify the thinking of these growth-at-all-costs politicians and community “leaders”.  The Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club Group has stood out as the opposition leader against this giant corporation and its underhanded tactics throughout the process. We and our environmental allies will continue to lead against further environmental destruction.

The next important meetings will be Feb. 16th and 18th at 5:30 at Eastside High School. The commissioners will be discussing the Plum Creek application, take public comment, and then vote. It’s important for our members to contact the county commissioners and the media to express their opinions. Commissioners Byerly and Cornell have steadfastly supported Alachua County and its comprehensive plan and need to hear that we appreciate what they are doing for us. The other commissioners, Chestnut, Hutchinson, and Pinkoson, need to hear how and why this issue is so important to us.

Democracy in government is practically non-existent these days in Florida. It looks from here like the powers in Tallahassee don’t care to consider the wishes of their constituents. Both bodies of the state legislature are poised to “fast track” the weak Water Bill that will affect our most valuable resource for at least ten years with no amendments. As I have written in previous columns, the Water Bill(s) in its present form is sorely lacking in conservation measures, oversight, funding, and vision.

It seems that any self-respecting representative or senator would at least favor debate on amendments to this terrible legislation. Unfortunately in ten years when another water-related bill is likely to be addressed, it will be far too late. This was the opportunity to do the right thing for our water resources.  All of the legislators responsible for this legislation will be long gone and replaced and the replacements will blame these guys for the carnage.

If every Sierra Club member were to write just a brief email to his or her representatives and senators, I guarantee we would see amendments to the Water Bill. Come on, members. Write one more bunch of emails. It’s our last chance. Simply go to the Myfloridahouse,gov or websites and look for the legislators’ addresses. (They actually do still make that available). Just ask them to allow the amendments on the floor for debate. Any good politician should allow discussion. Why should they rush to push this legislation through for another ten years? Good politicians don’t rush.

Thanks and Happy New Year,

Whitey Markle, Conservation Chair