In a memo (.pdf) sent to the heads of each of Florida’s five water management districts, a state Department of Environmental Protection special counsel writes that districts need to begin “paring down or eliminating” certain functions — an unsurprising request, given recent budget cuts. But environmental groups are worried about portions of the memo, which expressly indicate that the districts’ responsibilities be limited in several areas — including land acquisition, wetlands mitigation, water conservation, and the regulation of water supply and environmental resources.

In one sentence, which Audubon of Florida labeled “disturbing,” district heads are asked to extrapolate on the use of reserve funds and water-supply plans: “Districts will also need to provide a coherent explanation of the relationship between funds held in reserve and their relationship to the districts’ short, intermediate, and long-term water supply plans.”

From the Audubon of Florida blog post:

Hopefully, DEP has not taken the position districts should only invest capital funds in water supply as opposed to restoration and recovery of damaged water resources such as the Everglades. … Water management districts have an equal role of preserving water for the environment – this is done through land conservation and management as well as restoration projects.

One of the primary concerns of groups like Audubon is that Florida is faced with several water-specific issues — many of which aren’t mentioned in the memo. In fact, the memo seems to suggest that districts restrain efforts to protect Florida’s water resources.

With South Florida currently undergoing a drought, a cutback in protecting water resources couldn’t come at a worse time. Water Districts typically play a large role in the permitting process for utilities and make the ultimate decision on how much water big businesses can use (or, in some cases, use up). One portion of the Environmental Protection memo specifically states that regulatory staff (and, therefore, regulatory efforts) must be decreased, because “taxpayers and the regulatory community become frustrated when government grows in size and scope but does not improve its level of service.”

Whether or not district cuts will greatly affect ongoing restoration efforts remains an unanswered question — but budget cuts don’t bode well for the Florida Everglades.

The Everglades still needs major restorative work, which many believe would be beneficial in the long run: for the environment, and for the economy. A recent study (.pdf) conducted by Mather Economics for the Everglades Foundation found that, for every dollar invested in Everglades restoration efforts, approximately $4 of economic benefits would be generated.

South Florida Water Management District representatives say that its budget is currently being developed, and will be ready by its July Governing Board meeting.

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