The Putrefied Forest

Southwest Florida Water Management District's practice of storing agricultural water in the Myakka River Watershed is killing the trees and destroying wildlife habitat. Plans are in place to alleviate but not solve the problem.

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Agriculture pumps most of the water. Two of the largest farms that directly impact the swamp have recently taken steps to reduce runoff in cooperation with Swiftmud: Classie Farms is authorized to pump 11.6-million gallons per day, and Pacific Lands, sometimes called Pacific Tomato Growers, is permitted to pump 4.25-million gpd. Hi Hat Ranch, the family business of Tom Dabney, who's also Vice Chairman of the Swiftmud Governing Board, holds a permit for 6.07-million gpd.

Swiftmud is a peculiar creation of the Florida Legislature. It was established in 1961 for flood protection, but since the passage of the 1972 Water Resources Act, its activities have expanded each decade into the minutia of water supply, water quality, and natural systems protection. Approximately 57 percent of its budget, $199-million in 1999, comes from its ad valorem taxing authority on real estate; 28 percent derives from intergovernmental sources, such as the Save Our Rivers program, and the rest is from permits and interest. Half of the budget funds regulatory activity, and the other half is distributed to water projects among nine local basin boards, which cooperate with local governments, businesses and other regulatory agencies. Decision-making rests with the 11-member governing board, eight of whom reside in the district. The others serve at-large. All members are appointed by Florida's governor and confirmed by the state senate to four-year terms without pay; members of local basin boards too, serve at the pleasure of the governor with senate confirmation, but they serve three-year terms.

The professional backgrounds of the governing board members affect the way the district functions. Most members have direct economic ties to Florida's largest water-use industries such as agricultural, real estate/home building and commercial development and urban/suburban infrastructure, and mining. For example, the chair of the board Ronnie Duncan, Tarpon Springs, is president of Duncan Enterprises, a commercial real estate consulting and development business. Pamela Fentress, Lake Placid, is the financial operations manager for family-owned ag-businesses such as Lost Lake Groves and 4-D Citrus and Sod, among others. Margarita Dominguez, Tampa, holds the VP job for Technology and Support Services for Tampa Electric Company (TECO). Ron Johnson's the VP for the sand and rock miner E.R. Jahna Industries, which also has interests in citrus, cattle, trucking and ready-mix concrete. Three board members, John Renke, Monroe Coogler and Heidi McCree, show legal backgrounds in property and environmental law, with 'community" consensus-building skills added for sweetener. Pinellas-based Treasurer Watson Haynes has worked in governmental affairs, and Janet Kovach of Tampa is community affairs specialist for CF Industries Inc. and serves on Hillsborough County's Republican Executive Committee and Women's Republican Club. Vice Chairman Tom Dabney, a frequent speaker for the board, is a partner in Hi-Hat Ranch or Hi-Hat Cattle & Groves as it's called in some documents, which according to Dabney's vita on the district's Web site, farms cattle and groves. But this description is inaccurate because the farm's water permit indicates an exclusive and much more intensive water use for sod and row crops — more than 6-million gpd. Dabney's also the owner of Gulf Coast Property Services, which manages and develops residential and commercial properties such as Venice Palms and Gateway to Sarasota. Hi Hat Ranch is on deck to become a new village, pending the approval of Sarasota's 2050 plan, and the ranch's water permit is a valuable part of it, especially should the Florida Legislature privatize water supply; as it stands now, the water supply belongs to the public. Dabney's also a member of the Home Builder's Association and the Sarasota Republican Party Chairman's Circle.

Thus the Swiftmud's board represents dominant economic and political power. It sits in the crossfire of conflicting duties: meeting the water demands of the area's ruling businesses while trying to protect the water and natural systems those businesses exploit — the systems on which the natural environment and residents depend, the systems that make Florida habitable. Environmental interests and informed residential consumers are an important but subordinate influence in this mix.

However, Swiftmud is trying to remedy the Flatford Swamp issue. According to Steve Minnis, Swiftmud Sr. Community Affairs Coordinator, Swiftmud has updated its basis of review for water use permit applications in ways that will help prevent more excessive flow. It has also obtained the cooperation of two large water users, Classie Farms and Pacific Lands, in a first-phase effort to build surface water exchange projects designed to reduce annual flows into the swamp by 1.6-million gpd. Most of the reductions will occur during the peak months of the dry season, March-May, when the involved parties hope to reduce flows by 4.18-million gpd.

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