Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Water Visions/Water Civics 101: How Your Vote Affects Our Water

You watched the Lower Santa Fe River almost dry up in a recent drought. You’ve heard about pollution and reduced flows that plague our springs. You’ve noticed brown algae on the eelgrass and murky water in the Ichetucknee. You’re worried about how industrial-strength agriculture might affect your well water. You don’t always trust your city water. But do you know how your vote in federal, state, and local elections affects our water?
All Floridians need to understand that the choices we make at the polls, including the people we elect to represent us, can either help or hurt our water. We should know who makes which decisions about water, how much they understand about Florida’s hydrology, what motivates them, and how to hold them accountable for their decisions.
Federal Government. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the organization charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act that was passed by Congress in 1972. The act was passed in response to growing public concern for controlling water pollution. When the EPA was challenged by environmental organizations in a recent lawsuit here in Florida, however, the courts allowed that agency to punt enforcement of water pollution standards back to the State of Florida.
Other federal laws have historically been interpreted to mean that state and federal laws pre-empt local laws and that business and commerce take precedence over environmental health.
Members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are the people who enact federal laws, which may then be signed or vetoed by the president of the United States.
State Government. The state agency charged with controlling water pollution is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The agencies that issue water use permits and are charged with making sure that we all have enough water are the five water management districts. Here in our area, that’s the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) headquartered in Live Oak.
The person who appoints both the head of FDEP and the directors of the water management districts—the leading decision makers in those agencies—is the governor of Florida. Because the agencies are allowed to exercise a certain amount of discretion over how they enforce our water laws, that puts a lot of power over our water in the hands of one person, the governor of Florida.
Members of the state legislature, the Florida Senate and the Florida House of Representatives, make the laws that affect our water. Those laws may then be signed into law or vetoed by the governor.
Local Governments. Local (city and county) governments are responsible for enacting zoning laws and land use development regulations that determine where farms, residential developments, businesses and heavy industry can be sited. These governments also make decisions about the placement of city wells, wastewater treatment and utility plants, spray fields, and biosolids spreading areas. Depending upon whether the local utility company is publicly or privately owned, local governments may also be involved in decisions related to the operations of those companies.
What does this mean for us? While we won’t elect a new governor until 2018, there are opportunities to “vote for water” in the upcoming November elections. Here are some questions to consider.
Do you know the candidates in your federal, state, and local races? Do you know how they have voted on water issues in the past and whether their votes dovetailed with policies that were supported by local water advocacy organizations? (Remember that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.) If you don’t know the answers to those questions, can you find out, perhaps through the new accountability tools being developed by Florida Conservation Voters?
Many nonprofit organizations cannot endorse or oppose candidates for public office, but they can tell you what policies they support. Florida Conservation Voters is a new statewide organization that is allowed to endorse and oppose candidates because of how they are structured under federal law.
Some other important questions to ask about your candidates:  Who is supporting them? Who are the biggest donors to their campaigns? If they already hold public office, do they vote with a bloc or are they independent thinkers who can give examples of situations when they had the courage to make controversial decisions? Do they understand Florida’s hydrology enough to describe how our springs, aquifer and drinking water are connected? Can they name three long-term trends affecting the water in their district? Will they admit that a healthy economy depends on a healthy environment, or do they see “environment” and “jobs” as opposing forces? When was the last time they swam in a spring or paddled a local river?
Perhaps most important of all:  Do you trust them to make wise decisions about our water?

To learn more about…

The U.S. EPA:

The Clean Water Act:

Florida DEP:

The Suwannee River Water Management District:

Florida Conservation Voters:

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of "The Observer," a free monthly tabloid (circulation 5000 copies) distributed in the High Springs/Alachua/Newberry/Jonesville/Fort White areas of North Florida. Many thanks to publisher Barbara Llewellyn for her kind permission to post it here.