Not everybody shares U.S. Rep. Brian Mast’s glee over Melanie Peterson’s resignation and departure from the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board. Certainly I don’t.
Peterson has been effective, knowledgeable, candid and passionate about getting the District’s mission right.
She stood up to Congressman Mast’s uninformed guff. Maybe that put her on the outs with him, but others of us say, what’s not to like?
Mast, who represents much of the algae-besieged Treasure Coast, latched onto algal blooms and red tide as a winning agenda during his 2018 re-election campaign. He needed a scapegoat. Besides, the Everglades Foundation was a solid contributor to his campaign. He bought the Foundation/Trust’s hooey that the SFWMD, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Big Sugar are all in cahoots and responsible for the pollution in Lake Okeechobee discharges that make blooms grow.
Never mind science and scientists who talk about 16 different sources of river pollution. Never mind Congress’ failure to fund Uncle Sam’s share of Everglades restoration projects that could truly speed up a discharge cure. Mast loves passing on “good news” about his work on environmental bills, but he’s not so noisy talking about what he’s doing to get them funded.
When Peterson resigned last week, Mast released this statement: “Given Ms. Peterson’s track record of denying science and voting against Florida’s environment, this is good news and puts Gov.-elect DeSantis in an even stronger position to overhaul a board that has far too often placed the needs of special interests over public health and environmental protection.”
Denying science and voting against Florida’s environment? I nearly fell off my chair. When did Melanie Peterson do that?
His statement was straight out of Eric Eikenberg’s Everglades Foundation/Trust playbook. Which, I guess, is shared with the new governor. Ron DeSantis has expressed his pride in getting the Everglades Trust’s endorsement. During a debate with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum a few months back, he called the Trust “the gold standard.”
The gold standard … really? An organization that spouts information it knows is phony — like claiming the state land leased back to sugar could have been used now to store water. If that’s true, why can’t I find a single engineer in Florida who says it won’t cost millions and take an obscene amount of time to prepare those 16,000 leased acres for water storage?
Peterson has said it umpteen times: The reservoir will be built after a whole suite of CEPP projects in South Florida is finished.
Peterson’s decision to resign effective Jan. 1 was less about the looming change on the Board of Governors as it was her desire to take care of personal business. She was, after all, appointed to serve until 2022 and could have stayed on until then. See a copy of her resignation letter to Gov. Rick Scott in the attachment in the blue “download” below this story.
But make so mistake, a SFWMD board without Melanie Peterson is anything but good news.
Here’s what former state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, who specializes in farm law, had to say in a Facebook post: “Melanie Peterson accepted an unpaid, volunteer position and dedicated her time and talent for the betterment of the SFWMD. I have always been impressed with her ability to articulate complex water policy issues that often can’t be explained in a tweet or a sound byte. … I will truly miss her leadership on the Governing Board. I wish more people paid attention to the work of this vital 16-county agency. I have interacted with SFWMD since 2003 and am baffled at this politically charged rhetoric from elected officials who really are Johnny-come-latelys to CERP, CEPP, Restoration Strategies and more.
“Having sat through endless meetings over the last 15 years. I can tell you who walks the walk and who simply shows up when cameras are present to throw bombs,” Edwards-Walpole said. “Ain’t politics grand when it’s on a collision course with science?”
The Water Management District and Army Corps officials have repeatedly stressed that the EAA reservoir alone will not solve the water flow and nutrient load issues that lead to blue-green algae blooms in coastal waterways. Other politicians who have supported the reservoir plan (and also claimed partial credit for it) have been careful to note that it is not a “silver bullet” and is just one part of a series of interconnected projects in the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) needed to prevent harmful freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries.
The truth is, Mast is miffed because he and the governor-elect demanded the Governing Board hold off on leasing 16,000 acres back to Florida Crystals and board members went ahead with the lease anyway. The board was following the law, as the Legislature wrote it before SB 10 passed. Read the law.
Mast also has called for changing the lake level schedule to keep the lake lower during the dry season.
But the Corps of Engineers currently manages the lake according to the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), with lows of 12.5 feet to highs of 15.5 feet. Under LORS, the lake is managed for flood and storm risk management, navigation, water supply for salinity control in the estuaries, water supply for regional groundwater, agricultural irrigation, municipalities and industry; fish and wildlife, and recreation. Peterson has told him this isn’t negotiable without an act of Congress, and members of Congress are unlikely to put massive water projects in their own state at risk because their colleague Brian Mast has a theory.
Nyla Pipes, founder of water advocacy group One Florida Foundation, is already mourning the loss of Peterson to the board. “I follow South Florida Water Management District business,” she said. “I can tell you Melanie volunteered to serve because she cares deeply about the state of Florida. As an avid outdoorswoman, she understands the natural environment we risk losing. Her ability to sort fact from fiction and make pragmatic decisions based on science and facts will be missed on the Governing Board.”
Former Governing Board member Kevin Powers, from Martin County, told me losing Melanie Peterson is going to hurt. “Melanie was always driven by fact and science with a strong ability to stand her ground. She was never deterred by the ghetto of social media … which always drove the attention-chasing ‘advocates’. Crazy. Her tenure and experience will be missed. That board should always have some members with more than one term under their belt. Looks like that might be changing.”
I interviewed Melanie last week, after I’d read her letter of resignation. Here are my questions and her answers in full:
What has been your most satisfying accomplishment as a SFWMD governing board member?
Probably the most satisfying accomplishment has been reinventing our communications department so that information regarding what the district is doing on everything from flood control to restoration is at the fingertips of the taxpayers of South Florida. For too long, others were telling our story and telling it through a very distorted and politically charged lens. I was frustrated by this, not because of myself personally, but for each and every person who pays that levied tax each year to know that their contribution is being spent on things that directly benefit them and their quality of life. I also wanted them to be proud that their tax dollars were contributing to next generation, never-been-done-before projects that are nothing short of modern marvels and it was all thanks to THEM. While the media and special interest groups like to use fear and anger to motivate people for their political will, I prefer to empower people with the truth and hope that they get as excited as I am, and they will then spread that truth to their neighbors and then on. It’s a powerful thing and I am very proud of what we have accomplished on that front.
What has been the most difficult part of doing your job?
The most difficult part is balancing my real job with my volunteer job. The time spent as a Governing Board member is astounding. One never feels that they have done enough since this agency is so big and we are responsible for so much more than just flood control, working with local governments, other state agencies, and of course the federal government to continue forward progress in the least amount of time possible, all while being responsible with other people’s money. There is a personal responsibility that I have felt, and I know my colleagues share this as well.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
I suppose the greatest disappointment is the constant changing political cycle. Unfortunately, water has become a hot political subject and therefore our agency has been subject to many storylines in those cycles. As an agency of the state, and an appointed board, we are charged with doing the work of the agency with as little political influence as possible, all the while working WITH our state and federal legislators. In the past, legislators would come to the district to learn about the agency and the current events facing the region. Of recent, there are new faces who have not taken that time to learn the facts and understand the complexities of the agency and the work under way. Because of this, the agency has been the subject of political fodder and campaign slogans that quite frankly is inappropriate and shameful. Not for me, but for the nearly 2,000 amazing people who work at the District and dedicate their lives to its mission. I hope this trend changes, but it doesn’t look likely.
Guesstimate how many hours a week, on average, you spent on board matters.
Well, I was vice chair of the board, chair of the Project and Lands Committee, liaison on the Lake Worth Lagoon Initiative and sat on the Water Resources Advisory Council for Palm Beach County, so I would guess about 25 hours on average light weeks. It’s like having a second full-time job, but it is so rewarding to know that the footprints you leave will have a lasting impression on your community and as members come and go, it’s a passing of the torch as the work is never really done.
Gov. Scott received a lot of media criticism for removing the most professional leadership from the District. Do you think the staff left in place was competent enough to do the massive job expected of them?
I will say that the staff at the district is second to none. That being said, the leadership team when I became a board member in early 2014 was much different to the team we have had in place for some time. There was a lot of criticism regarding needing more scientific people in management and I am not sure I agreed with that sentiment. We needed a leader, and Pete Antonacci was the best man for the job. He was able to get up to speed on the goings-on at the base level of what the district does on a day-to-day basis while also tackling some of the more high-level issues we were engrossed in at the time with intelligence, tact, and pointed regard. It was certainly something the parties we were dealing with were not used to, hence the harsh criticism. But it was so necessary for where we were at that time and Pete led us through some of the toughest issues we faced during my term. Ernie Marks was able to take the reins from Pete with the same fervor while adding the scientific background everyone cried for in the media. Our leadership team is comprised of some of the best people in the business and we are so fortunate they are willing to serve the district with their talents.
As you leave, what do you see as the biggest threat(s) to Everglades restoration?
To me, the biggest threat is the media and the lies told to the public. It confuses people, it affects funding, it affects elections, it affects progress. Journalism is dead. Now, an article about Everglades restoration has little content and contains mostly quotes by paid spokespeople of special interest groups. Never mind most if not all of those quotes are completely inaccurate, the writer doesn’t care. It is printed and there are ramifications … and it goes back to lying to the public who are paying for all of this. They don’t deserve that. I am not saying we, along with any agency taxing the public, don’t deserve criticism and oversight. We absolutely do. But I have never seen a positive article about the projects we have brought on line over the past four years. It’s sad and ultimately that will be the biggest threat to finishing restoration.
What is the most important advice you could give to incoming board members?
I will tell you what I have told everyone who has come after me: Ask a lot of questions, question everything, and get involved with what you are personally passionate about.
What is the most important advice you could give to Gov. DeSantis?
I hope he will take the time to come to the District himself and get to know the amazing people we are so fortunate to have working there. I hope he will be proud of what they have accomplished to date and what they are all dedicating their life’s work to finish. And, I would probably give him the same advice as my fellow board members: Ask a lot of questions and question everything!
Melanie Peterson was caring, but thankfully, she was nobody’s toady. It will be interesting to see the makeup of the new Governing Board.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith