By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Florida has 1,700 streams and rivers, 7,800 freshwater lakes, 700 springs, 11 million acres of wetlands, not to speak of 1,350 miles of coastline and more than 8,000 miles of tidal shoreline. And some of the largest population increases in United States history.
It’s a prospering recipe that lacks just one ingredient: water. Fresh, clean water. And lots of it. In 2005, Floridians used almost 7 billion gallons of freshwater a day. And there were almost a million fewer people in the state in 2005.
Water is the single most important resource in the Sunshine State. Which is why the state legislature passed the Florida Water Resources Act in 1972, creating six regional water management districts in 1972 (in 1975, two southern districts merged to become the South Florida Water Management District).
Now, 39 years later, the state is bursting at the population seams and facing unprecedented water-related challenges, such as the restoration of the entire Everglades ecosystem and the rehabilitation of other polluted freshwater supplies, mostly from agricultural runoff (agriculture also uses more freshwater than humans). In 2010, Florida had 1,918 miles of “impaired” or polluted rivers (that number almost doubled from 2008 to 2010), and 378,000 acres of impaired lakes.
It would seem to be the time to ramp up the work of the five water management districts, which look out for the quality and quantity of the water in our state.
But facing a moribund economy and a depleted state treasury, lawmakers in Tallahassee have instead chosen to shrink the districts. The South Florida Water Management District, the state’s largest, was cut by 30 percent. The St. Johns Water Management District will have to lay off 120 to 140 of its 700 employees.
The $700 million in cuts — about 40 percent of the districts’ budgets — were supposed to give homeowners a $210.5 million tax break, or about 50 cents per homeowner per week.
That would be almost enough, wrote Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, in the Palm Beach Post, to buy each Florida homeowner about two bottles of drinking water a month.
And Gov. Rick Scott is pushing the Department of Environmental Protection to force the districts to make an additional $2.4 million in cuts.
If that savings is passed along to homeowners, that would come out to around a half-cent per week. A quarter a year.