At first meeting, new South Florida water managers vow to simplify district’s workings

South Florida water managers named a new executive director Thursday and vowed to try to better communicate the complicated workings of the 16-county district.
South Florida water managers named a new executive director Thursday and vowed to try to better communicate the complicated workings of the 16-county district. Miami Herald File

In their first meeting after a contentious turnover, South Florida water managers made a longtime environmental regulator their new executive director and vowed to do business more transparently.

The governing board for the South Florida Water Management District appointed Drew Bartlett, an engineer and deputy secretary at the Department of Environmental Protection, as director. Bartlett oversaw restoration of ecosystems and worked on water quality for six years for the state agency. Before that, he worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than 16 years where he was chief of water quality for the southeastern U.S.

Thursday’s West Palm Beach meeting was the first for the new board appointed by DeSantis after he demanded the resignation of the former board when they defied his order to postpone a controversial vote.

Former board members angered the new governor when they voted two days after the election to extend a lease to sugar farmers on land targeted for an Everglades reservoir intended to help reduce polluted discharges from the lake that have polluted the coast. DeSantis had asked them to hold off voting until he could review the matter, but the board said legislation that created the reservoir forced them to extend the leases.

Bartlett’s appointment drew praise from environmental groups who had battled with the previous board over what they considered a cozy relationship with the state’s agriculture industry.

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The South Florida Water Management District’s governing board named Drew Bartlett executive director on Thursday. Bartlett is deputy secretary at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection overseeing ecosystems restoration.

“No matter how tough things got, the more things got complex, the rockier the partnership, Drew was always there,” said Shannon Estenoz, Everglades Foundation chief operating officer, who worked with Bartlett when she oversaw Everglades restoration at the U.S. Department of Interior. “That is exactly the kind of leadership the agency needs now.”

But while he was at the state environmental agency, Bartlett came under fire when the state revised water quality standards that critics said weakened protections against dangerous chemicals.

The change covered more than 80 chemicals and used a novel method created by the state agency that allowed an increase in levels of more than two dozen known toxins used in fracking by the oil and gas industry. Bartlett said at the time the state was forced to make the change to comply with laws that require scientifically defensible standards.

Critics complained that he often sided with polluters and was ineffective at regulating water standards. But they also said he could have been under marching orders from the previous administration.

“Rick Scott had no intention of regulating polluters so I want to give Drew Bartlett the benefit of the doubt,” said Sierra Club Florida director Frank Jackalone. DeSantis “is clearly singing a different tune. So there is some hope he will follow directions from DeSantis, assuming DeSantis really wants to clean up Florida’s water.”

Indian Riverkeeper director Marty Baum, who bitterly fought with Bartlett over the water standards, said they’ve since agreed to set aside their differences.

“I know he is certainly up to speed intellectually and scientifically, which is something we have not always had there,” he said. “We don’t have to teach him anything. He already gets it. I’m pleased we buried the hatchet and I’m going to give him a chance.”

Bartlett becomes the fourth director since 2015 and replaces Ernie Marks, who also worked at DEP before being named the district’s deputy director in 2016 and director the next year. Marks replaced Pete Antonacci, Scott’s former general counsel who frequently sparred with federal agencies and left to run Enterprise Florida.

Bartlett has an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and a master’s in business administration from Georgia State and is now scheduled to start April 1. Board members still need to negotiate a contract and salary. Marks earned $165,000.

Amid much congratulations from regulars at the monthly meetings, board members also took steps to make the complicated workings of the 16-county district more user-friendly to the public.

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a former commissioner for upscale Sewall’s Point whose frequent blog posts and aerial photos of slimy algae on the St. Lucie estuary helped draw attention to water woes caused by Lake Okeechobee, asked to hold workshops. She also suggested staff providing technical reports consider simplifying information about the sprawling system.

“We have just got to start communicating in a way that the average person can understand,” she said. “I need to understand it as just a regular person. And thank you. You are awesome. And it must be torture having a person like me asking questions.”