SFWMD Senior Scientist Terrie Bates Quits. Was Retirement a Bridge Too Far?


Terrie Bates

Terrie Bates

Terrie Bates, director of Water Resources at the South Florida Water Management District and one of its most respected scientists, has resigned her position.

In a letter to SFWMD Governing Board members on Wednesday, Bates said her retirement is coming up quickly, and after 35 years at the District, she is simply accelerating her departure. “Knowing that I am time-limited by virtue of the state retirement system DROP program, I think it’s best for the District if I take my leave now so you have the opportunity to better invest your time with the Water Resources leader who will be working closely with you for years to come,” she wrote.

“I wanted to personally let you know I will be leaving the District in a few weeks. You all are embarking on such an important journey and I know that the demands on your time devoted to water management district business can be overwhelming. It really is important for you to develop strong working relationships with the professional staff here who are charged with carrying out your direction.”

I Beg to Differ

Bates has a wealth of institutional knowledge. So much that she was appointed interim agency director, serving during the post-inauguration Governing Board blow-up, between the time Ernie Marks was replaced as executive director effective March 5, and Drew Bartlett took over April 1.

Bates’ loss, particularly now when the new board members are trying to catch on, will be significant.

Born and raised in Palm Beach County, she received a bachelor of science in forest resources & conservation from the University of Florida and a masters in public administration from Florida Atlantic University.

She joined the District in 1985 and since then, her experience has grown exponentially, covering environmental regulation, water supply, water quality, wetland mitigation, ecosystem restoration, applied science and watershed management. 

According to her District bio, she directed “a streamlining effort in environmental permitting to combine the state’s surface water management, dredge & fill and sovereign submerged lands programs and to create the mitigation banking program.”

The District hadn’t revealed publicly what it planned to do after Bates’ retirement, nor was it forthcoming Thursday. 

Bates declined to talk about her resignation, in fact declined to talk to me at all. As did her friends and colleagues. But, frankly, I didn’t blame her or them. The SFWMD has to be a pretty bizarre place to work these days.

I’ve been cringing for these folks for a long time now.

It started back when Gov. DeSantis announced the appointment of Scott Wagner to the board. “As a practicing maritime lawyer,” the governor said, Wagner brings “a unique perspective and expertise of Florida’s waterways” to the South Florida Water Management District. He does? No offense to Wagner, who is now the board’s vice chair, I’m sure he’s a perfectly good maritime lawyer. But how does maritime law, or “admiralty law” as it’s called — which deals with international agreements and treaties and cruise ships — qualify as expertise on Florida’s waterways? For that matter, how did Wagner’s position on the Orange Bowl Committee qualify him?

More recently, on April 11, there was the press release that proudly announced the District was going to move policy forward by popularity contest. Did you see that one?  The headline in bold: “SFWMD Wants to Hear From You!” The subhead: “Governing Board asking for public input to help set the agency’s strategic priorities.” Huh? I imagined long-time District employees reacting like Richard Pryor in the movie “Silver Streak,” when he stood bolt-upright in the middle of a shoot-out — bullets flying around him — and bellowed, “Who’s in charge here?” 

What must a serious scientist who has devoted three-and-a-half decades to the Everglades ecosystem think of ending her career upstaged by board members who believe phosphate is the same as phosphorous, who haven’t a clue what goes on in a stormwater treatment area during the dry season, who don’t know the difference between deep water injection wells (DIW) and aquifer storage and recovery wells (ASR)? And the frightening part is, they think they know.

You can teach one or two new board members. They have always learned by assimilation. But how do you bring a whole class of newbies up to speed (Ron Bergeron excepted) and continue on the course you set so carefully and with so much difficulty? 

I’m just guessing here, but I think the last straw for Terrie Bates — the Big Giddyup — might have been the hypocrisy on display during last week’s nine-hour meeting of the Governing Board. I’m talking about the back-to-back agenda items, the first on whether WRAC and WRAC-REC should be continued, the next on the EAA Reservoir. The room was fairly full. (See the WRAC discussion here, starting at about 4:57:0.) 

One by one, members of environmental groups that get money from the Everglades Foundation/Trust/Coalition took their turns at the podium, all doing the triumvirate’s bidding, to denounce the volunteer Water Resources Analysis Coalition (WRAC). (When you have control of the whole water power structure in the state, the last thing you want is a bunch of volunteers who might know more than you do.)

Who were these environmentalists? Celeste de Palma, Audobon Florida; Rae Ann Wessel, Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation; Capt. Daniel Andrews, Captains for Clean Water; Lisa Interlandi, Everglades Law Center; Cara Capp, National Parks Conservation Association; Rienaldo Diaz, Lake Worth Lagoon keeper; Marisa Carrozzo, Conservancy Southwest Florida; and a handful of others.

But when they had finished, each making an orchestrated pitch, a curious thing happened. This group got up at the same time and left at the same time. Their day was done. BEFORE the board moved on to the EAA Reservoir. 

Here comes the hypocrisy of these people, rising as it does across the ‘glades. I’ve written about it before.

These same people who couldn’t give a muskrat’s moustache for the EAA Reservoir on April 11, 2019, are the very ones whining and crying last November because the previous Governing Board went behind their backs. The board voted to follow the law and let Florida Crystals lease its land until construction fully started. These are the same people who were screaming because they didn’t have a seat at the table. They were outraged and indignant and they stayed that way until the governor sacked the entire SFWMD Governing Board. A victory for Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. 

Again, just a guess. But I’m thinking the moment Terrie Bates threw in the towel was the moment in the middle of the EAA Reservoir discussion that the Miccosukees announced they would oppose the reservoir. The Tribe’s interest has federal protection. All of sudden, Floridians could be looking at another 10 years of legal entanglement for the reservoir. Read it and weep.

The most important news of the entire nine hours, yet the new Governing Board’s support team was nowhere to be found. Their show had ended. Reservoir? What reservoir? Have a look at the photo of meeting room below, sans once-angry enviros.

I’m thinking, at that moment Terrie Bates had to be telling herself, no-can-do — I’m done.

The executive who had management responsibilities for overseeing the District’s water shortage and drought response in 2006-2007 and again in 2011, the same one was there through eight governors and now her ninth, who was there at the start of Everglades restoration and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan … It’s a great shame to see her go even one day before her time.

Where'd they go? The EAA Reservoir discussion begins.

Where’d they go? The EAA Reservoir discussion begins.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith