by Gary Cooper
In this new atmosphere of starting over from scratch with South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) leadership, a growing number of people in agriculture are asking more often and more loudly, “What’s going on?” Agriculture appears to be under the microscope, some say more like under attack, as a fast-growing urban sector reacts to what they don’t know. Some elected officials continue to shield facts from the public to support their agenda.
Last week’s SFWMD water quality workshop at District headquarters further indicates that more direct regulations are coming, despite science showing agricultural best management practices (BMPs) have been successful at improving water quality. For decades, farmers and ranchers have been implementing water quality improvements to help mitigate the impact of unbridled urban growth.
Hours of workshop presentations, assumptions and panel discussion last week finally gave way to a few minutes for public comment, after a missed lunch hour that came and went without a break. The hours of delay to allow any public input disappointed some who had to return to work before the comment period.
NOTE: All SFWMD workshops and meetings are live streamed by SFWMD, and archived for viewing anytime at www.sfwmd.gov
One of the more telling exchanges during the workshop for agriculture, particularly for farmers and ranchers north of Lake Okeechobee, revolved around BMPs. Direct discussion among governing board members clearly indicates a robust interest in increasing regulations on landowners. Below are some choice excerpts.
Just before public comments were allowed, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) representative Tom Frick fielded a question from SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett about expectations for increasing regulations on landowners:
Bartlett then commented on the intentions of the District to join FDEP in increased regulatory efforts that are expected to focus more on areas north of Lake Okeechobee:
Throughout the morning, governing board member and vice chair Scott Wagner had several questions, observations and assumptions about agricultural BMPs. As more people point to water entering Lake Okeechobee from the north as a major concern, Wagner called agricultural BMPs a theory and appeared to have a clear distrust for agriculture producers and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) BMP programs:
In direct contrast to the inferences made in Wagner’s comments, Rich Budell of Budell Water Group, was anxious to get to the podium to address Wagner’s doubts and assumptions. Budell served as director of the FDACS Office of Agricultural Water Policy for 17 years. With decades of experience working among both private and public sector stakeholders, he has spent many years involved in BMP development, research and management. Budell nailed the facts without hesitation. He addressed Wagner’s comments head-on about the success of agricultural BMPs and water quality measurements during the three minutes he was allotted for comments.
Florida Farm Bureau’s Gary Ritter was in a tough position as the first public comment, after long hours of debate and discussion. Ritter tried to get some facts into the meeting record, but few in the room seemed interested.
In closing, we’re sharing comments below from Newton Cook, who represents United Waterfowlers of Florida. Offering comments during last week’s SFWMD water quality workshop, Cook clearly shatters a myth about sugar farming that continues to be misreported and repeated by politicians and organizations with questionable agendas
Florida’s green space and its future environmental health depends on better mutual understanding between farm and city dwellers alike. As more people look north of Lake Okeechobee as a nutrient source to be reckoned with, we share Cook’s comments above as a word of caution. Farmers south of Lake Okeechobee have been lied about for years. Let’s hope this time around farmers and ranchers throughout Florida will be rightfully discovered and embraced as the quality partners they have always been when dealing with never-ending urban challenges that threaten their lands and their livelihoods.
Gary Cooper is the founder and president of AgNet Media, Inc., based in Gainesville, Florida.