Water stewardship economic driver
The Southwest Florida Water Management District is up to its neck in financial woes, and while severe cutbacks are necessary, Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers should be prepared to throw a lifeline. Its stewardship is critical to the state's economic growth. As the Tribune's Keith Morelli reports, reduced tax revenues resulting from lower property values and cuts by the Legislature and Scott have reduced the regional water district's budget almost by half. The district, commonly called Swiftmud, is using reserves to carry on critical responsibilities, such as cleaning rivers and lakes, helping agriculture reduce groundwater use and developing alternative water sources. The money will run out within a couple of years, and then much of the district's vital water protection functions will be compromised.Already the district has virtually halted land acquisition and now is looking at selling land. All this should be intensely troubling to anyone who cares about Florida's future. Florida can't grow without clean and abundant water sources. And it won't prosper if it wrecks its natural beauty. Swiftmud's water controls have helped the region meet the water demands of a growing population while protecting critical resources. Its land conservation preserves beautiful stretches of wilderness that provide key wildlife habitat and offer countless recreational opportunities. These lands also buffer rivers, springs, lakes and bays from polluting runoff. They avert costly flooding projects by preventing construction in flood-prone areas. Land purchases prevent harmful development without property rights disputes. Yet some politicians act as if conserving land is a waste of money. That is a shortsighted attitude that will prove costly to taxpayers and the environment. Scott, to his credit, provides $15 million for the Florida Forever land conservation program in this year's budget. It's a minimal amount but shows the state intends to keep the effort alive even during these tough times. We don't suggest that Swiftmud and the other four state water districts be exempt from serious cuts. Like many state agencies, they grew accustomed to a heavy flow of tax dollars during the boom years. New Southwest Florida Water Management District Executive Director Blake Guillory now is seeking to wring every possible efficiency from operations. It should be a beneficial exercise for taxpayers and the agency, as long as the district's water-protection mission remains the priority. Similarly, selling some land of limited environmental value may be appropriate, particularly if the district sells it with restrictions that will prevent harmful uses. But such transactions deserve the utmost scrutiny. The better approach is to encourage more public use of the land, which the district has emphasized in recent years. It offers an excellent guidebook detailing all the land available for hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing and other activities. Officials also are right to pursue expanded use, particularly hunting, which is prohibited at many sites. It can be managed so it has little impact on the land or other users. Hunters — outdoor enthusiasts — should be natural allies of the district's conservation work. In these financially difficult times Swiftmud needs all the advocates it can get. The painful austerity steps the district is undergoing now may result in a leaner more efficient operation. But voters should watch to ensure the district's critical stewardship responsibilities are not crippled. A Florida that doesn't invest in safeguarding its natural riches will soon find itself wanting for water and economic opportunities.