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Appointees key to protecting environment

Florida’s water management districts, and the appointees to their governing boards, play a key role in protecting Florida’s environment and water resources.

Earlier this month, the Suwannee River Water Management District’s governing board was forced to cancel a budget hearing because it had too many vacancies.

Gov. Ron DeSantis subsequently reappointed two members so the board could again have a quorum — but DeSantis needs to do better in both the people he is appointing and speed of those appointments. The reappointed members are the president of a Perry logging company and a Lake City pawn shop, continuing the board’s dominance by members representing business interests rather than environmental advocates.

While the issue might not capture the public’s attention, such appointments are a hugely important part of a governor’s job. The water management districts play a key role in protecting Florida’s environment and water resources, with power over issuing permits allowing groundwater pumping and the destruction of wetlands.

Florida Springs Council President Dan Hilliard wrote DeSantis this week urging him to “restore diversity and balance” to the boards of the districts, particularly those responsible for protecting Florida’s natural springs.

“There are a dozen qualified applicants who are supported by the environmental community and not influenced by vested business or political interest,” Hilliard wrote.

DeSantis showed he cares more about environmental protection than his predecessor when he began his term in January, with one of his first acts being to demand the resignations of all the members of the South Florida Water Management District board. The district had been too closely aligned with Big Sugar and impeded efforts to protect the public from toxic algae blooms caused by industry practices.

That board now has eight of its nine members in place, but the Tampa Bay Times reported this week that the rest of the state’s water management district boards have multiple open seats. DeSantis’ communications communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, told the Times that the governor is just being selective.

“When it comes to water management, he wants to make sure his appointments are people who share his vision for Florida’s environment,” she said.

Some of his appointments, however, seem to continue the approach of former Gov. Rick Scott — who when his term ended left the district boards with agricultural and business representatives but no one focused on environmental advocacy. DeSantis last month named the president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce to the board of the St. Johns River Water Management District, one of two districts that includes parts of Alachua County.

For the Suwannee River district board, the other district that includes the county, applicants include Florida Springs Institute Executive Director Bob Knight and Our Santa Fe River Inc. board member Merillee Malwitz-Jipson. Previous boards had members such as former state lawmaker David Flagg, whose votes included rejecting a permit for a water-bottling operation in Gilchrist County.

With a nearby permit for a water bottling now being sought by Nestlé/Seven Springs, the composition of that board is particularly important. DeSantis needs to show through his remaining appointments that his vision is better protecting Florida’s environment, not allowing it to be further degraded.

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