Can you imagine turning on the faucet but having no water come out? Or, after a tropical storm, grappling with standing water in the streets, or even your living room, because there isn’t an adequate flood-control system?
Florida’s water-management districts protect against these unpleasant situations and fix them when they occur. In addition to performing these important duties, our regional water-management district, the South Florida Water Management District, is the state partner in Everglades restoration. Lacking snow-capped mountains that melt into reservoirs, South Florida depends on the Everglades to recharge underground aquifers as our source of water. Unfortunately, in just the past 60 years since our modern flood control system was built, the Everglades have been severely damaged because of the disruption of water flow and other human activity such as farming and development. Restoring the Everglades, aside from having obvious environmental appeal, is imperative for maintaining our only supply of water.
Last year’s massive funding cuts to water-management districts severely compromised those agencies’ ability to carry out core missions of water supply, flood control, and in South Florida’s case, Everglades restoration. In just the past two years, SFWMD’s water supply budget has been cut almost 70 percent. This is the program that ensures you will have running water tomorrow and 20 years from now; develops alternative water supplies as upper aquifers become tapped out; and fosters water conservation. SFWMD has also severely cut its science, education, and monitoring programs. As Everglades restoration progresses, it is crucial to have adequate science programs to monitor and adapt to changing conditions and to maximize our restoration investments. Land stewardship programs that allow recreation on district-owned lands such as trails, horseback riding areas, and waters have also been greatly reduced.
Initially this year it appeared things might be headed back to the right path. Gov. Scott signed new legislation that lifted his artificially imposed spending limits, ostensibly allowing water-management districts to raise revenues needed to sustain their missions.
Recently, however, the water-management districts set their tax millage rates for next year to establish the revenue they will raise through property rates. Even though the South Florida Water Management District reported an almost $5 million shortfall, it decided to set a millage rate that further reduces its tax revenue — even less than last year’s funding after the draconian Scott cuts. To make matters worse, these reductions will have cumulative impacts in the coming years.
Sadly, politics, rather than science and common sense, have driven the decision-making. It’s understandable in an election year that raising the funds necessary to carry out even legislatively mandated missions might paint a district as increasing taxes. With recent legislation virtually ceding budget decisions to Tallahassee, SFWMD’s Governing Board rubber-stamped these crippling cuts without meaningful discussion.
In exchange, do these cuts produce actual savings for South Florida’s tax payers ? For the owner of a $300,000 house, the reduction in this year’s millage rate will save about $1.50 — less than the cost of a half-gallon of gas.
Gambling with our region’s water supply for fear of appearing to “increase taxes” is irresponsible and a disservice to Floridians. Whether politically popular or not, investing in long-term water supply, restoration, and science is a necessity and best serves the public interest.
Eric Buermann is former chairman of the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District.