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Are environmental groups becoming the new gaming interests?

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

Industry “food fights” are nothing new, with a few running battles that go on for so long, opponents forget what the fight was originally all about.

What they know is they just don’t want the other guys to win.

Disputes over the Seminole Compact (or other gaming bills for that matter) rarely pass the Legislature simply because one party doesn’t want the other to gain ground – even if they are forced to sacrifice something on their end.

Joining gaming industry players in this sheer spite category are environmental groups, which for years have supported a policy concept heralded as a possible savior for the future of water in Florida.

A few years ago, a little-known project – Dispersed Water Storage (DWS) or “surface water storage” – was promoted by the South Florida Water Management District, which issued a request for proposal seeking outside bids to store stormwater runoff on private land.

The goals of DWM are simple: the project aims to reduce the volume of water flowing into Lake Okeechobee and damaging discharges and nutrients to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. That leads to improved water quality and rehydration of drained systems, as well as meeting the Lake Okeechobee Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for total phosphorous (TP), and other water quality criteria.

Environmental groups, including Audubon Florida and the Conservancy of South Florida, testified at legislative committee meetings that the project was worthy of state funding, praising it as good for water policy. They came to Tallahassee armed with inches-thick materials supporting their argument.

But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Environmentalists eventually got their way – as well as a few unintended consequences.

Soon, private landowners, farmers and other commercial interests – those vilified by environmental groups as “Big Ag” – stepped up and offered their land for the project, for which they received SWFMD approval.

Keep in mind, all parties – the DEP, the Legislature, and the water management district – have identified the need for 1 million acre-feet of storage to stem the freshwater discharges for Lake Okeechobee. The only way that ever happens is to work with large landowners with the ability to store the water. Short of that, the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie and Indian River estuaries will continue to be polluted by too much freshwater.

As Tyler Treadway of TCPalm teased Monday, now the Legislature is considering funding the Alico water farm in Henry County. Treadway promises a “hard-hitting investigation” of the multimillion-dollar water project.

“Landowners get paid rain or shine,” Treadway says. “The state loses its investment in infrastructure when the water farm ceases operations. Critics say the state should require, not reward, farmers to haul their own runoff.”

Despite increasing calls to re-examine the program, a 2014 SFWMD audit found that DWM projects are indeed the “innovative complements to other regional projects,” including aquifer storage and recovery, deep injection wells, storage reservoirs and other state initiatives, each critical to long-term storage needs.

As with any new government program, the audit acknowledged, there is room for improvement and identified several ways to strengthen the existing DWM Program and increase cost efficiency.

However, a June 2015 Audubon Florida report suggests – in a stark turnaround from their previous position on DWMs – that “SFWMD should develop better cost and return estimates for DWM projects.”

Why the change of heart? Perhaps there was a grand epiphany? No.

Environmentalists – disillusioned by ideological adversaries entering the fray – are fully prepared to backpedal on the idea, quick to insist DWM’s ideas now have no part in a multi-tiered strategy to manage Florida’s endangered water supply.

Just like their counterparts in the state’s gaming debate, environmentalists are perfectly willing to trash a reasonable, responsible program – simply because they don’t like the players.

Acting out of spite is never a winning strategy, and rarely makes good public policy.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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