Only the rich and connected need apply: an inside account of the legal hearing to protect the Rainbo

Read the original article in the Gainesville Sun here:

I’m still one of those cock-eyed optimists who believe that most of the time, our public servants are trying to do their best for most Floridians. We all carp about the motivations of our elected officials and their appointees. But, by and large, those who toil away anonymously in our state agencies seem like pretty decent folks.

This is, until lawyers at the Southwest Florida Water Management District burst my bubble on June 10.

That day was the start of a three-day administrative hearing — essentially a trial — to determine whether the state’s plan for protecting flows on Rainbow Spring was protective enough. Rainbow has the largest flow of any spring in Florida and quite possibly the world. Its clarity is unsurpassed, and it is designated as an Outstanding Florida Water, a Florida Aquatic Preserve and a National Natural Landmark.

The hearing was called because the district’s plan, known as an MFL, was challenged by the 230-member Rainbow River Conservation Inc., as well as by three citizens who live near the Rainbow and enjoy it frequently. The legal issue argued at the hearing was whether the MFL would green-light groundwater pumping that would cause “significant harm” to that beautiful spring and river.

These Floridians were fighting for their beloved river because they’ve seen it suffer increasing, seemingly irreversible degradation over the decades. The state can ruin everyone’s enjoyment of this natural jewel by setting allowable flow levels too low.

On June 10, the president of Rainbow River Conservation and the three citizens took the stand to explain why they were bringing the challenge. Some of this testimony truly tugged at the heartstrings.

There were poignant pictures of grandchildren splashing in the river and tales of crystal-clear snorkeling trips. There were pictures of stinking algal mats and boats grounded on the river bottom in times of low flows. Surely, no one could doubt that these lovers of the Rainbow would be granted “standing” to challenge the District’s plan.

But, then, the proceedings turned bizarre. One of the water management district’s four attorneys asked each of the four citizens whether they had a permit from the district to pump water or intended to apply for one. These water-use permits, required for groundwater extractions greater than 100,000 gallons per day, are enough for at least 40 households. All answered no, they had never had a reason to apply for that kind of profligate pumping.

The district’s lawyers shockingly asked the judge to muzzle the four citizens — to deny them standing, to disallow their challenge, and to terminate the hearing.

According to these “public servants,” the Rainbow citizens don’t reallyuse the river. If any of them were a water-bottling company or a huge out-of-state agribusiness, they could of course challenge the MFL on the basis that it might affect their bottom-line. For those well-heeled folks ... we welcome your testimony and please pick up your water permit on the way out.

But folks who had lived on the river for 50 years and splash in it regularly with their grandchildren? Nah, you’re not entitled to be heard and don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out. Or as the water management district’s lawyers put it, the MFL falls into the “zone of interest” of big corporations but not regular Floridians.

Students in law school are taught the value of a zealous defense of the client. But they’re also taught that while you may be able to make a silly argument, you don’t have to use it.

Our state agencies and employees are there to serve the interests of all the people in the State. Our environmental agencies like the Southwest Florida Water Management District exist to protect Florida’s water resources. The incident in Brooksville on June 10 made it clear that one of those agencies has no clue what its mission is. It certainly is not be to protect those best-positioned to degrade our unique natural resources.

Judge Telfer ultimately allowed the citizens to testify but deferred ruling on their standing until September. We hope then that he will affirm the rights of regular citizens to seek redress for a plan that will lock in further degradation of the Rainbow.

There are enough people on the public payroll who think that their job is to coddle the well-connected. We need more state officials, judges, and politicians who worry first about the little guy — and the waters that sustain us all.

Bob Palmer is a board member of the Florida Springs Council.

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