Longform

Enviro-hassles

Page 4 of 7

"I had relative independence. I was without a doubt the most independent and most pampered public official in Tallahassee -- because no one knows what the hell you do! 'Oh, he's an ombudsman. We better behave.' Very few public officials would unequivocally, in their own goodness of heart, welcome an ombudsman. We're the guys looking over everybody's shoulder. There's no issue, no issue, that I handled in three and half years that is an ombudsman issue. It's always, always, in somebody's else's turf. If you know anything about turf and public officials, therein lies the problem. An ombudsman has no authority."


Many South Floridians might not know it, but we're locked in a water war with Georgia. It involves the Chattahoochee River, which runs through Atlanta, then enters Florida in the Panhandle, where it's renamed the Apalachicola. "Atlanta wants to suck up all the water for their growth, leaving a trickle to come to Florida," Brumberg says. "That's the water wars in a nutshell."

A trickling river spells doom for the ecosystem of Apalachicola Bay, where more than 80 percent of Florida's oysters are harvested. The 1,500 or so families who depend on oysters for their livelihood know that firsthand, having lived through a drought in 2001 that drastically drew down the river, which winds through 109 miles of relatively undeveloped land west of Tallahassee. The waterway's shores are home to two of the rarest kinds of evergreen trees in the world, and the river's backwaters are the nursery for a host of creatures, from shrimp and crabs to striped bass.

"The salinity had been at the highest levels it had ever been at in recorded history," says David McLain, executive director of Apalachicola Bay and River Keeper organization (ABARK). "The predators of our oysters are all saltwater creatures, and they began attacking our oysters. And red tide, which is a saltwater event, followed the salinity, and we had a mammoth fish kill, and we had to stop harvesting oysters for two, three months. There were people who had no other means of support other than oystering."

The ongoing Apalachicola war illustrates how difficult it is for average citizens to participate in DEP decisions that directly affect their lives. Brumberg and others contend that the state should be mustering as many citizen foot soldiers for the water war as it can. Volunteers, however, have been less than welcome by the DEP.



McLain came onboard with ABARK in August 2001, several months after a multistate proposal for water allocation had been floated by officials of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, which borders part of the river. The proposal sprang from a three-state commission that broadly defined the states' intent to negotiate an equitable way to share water. The technical details of who got how much water was left to be hashed out by a few officials from each state. In Florida's case, Bush designated Struhs, a DEP attorney, and the head of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

The proposal they'd come up with, however, was attacked by citizens' groups, which contended it was too lopsided toward the "State of Atlanta" and would leave a permanent drought flow in Florida, McLain says. He insisted on going further than rock-throwing, however, pushing instead for creating a new formula for water flow based on science and common sense. "I am fortunate to have experts on the advisory board, from hydrologists to marine biologists to land-use folks," he says. "We determined we needed the strength of people directly involved in and impacted by the formula." He took the new criteria to the County Commission for each of the six counties by the river and asked for and received their endorsement. Then in November 2001, he sent Struhs a package of information with the request that ABARK be involved in the future as stakeholders. He heard nothing.

He contacted Brumberg and told him he was getting the "slow roll" from Struhs. The ombudsman looked over McLain's documentation and became convinced ABARK's input was essential. "What I tried to do was insinuate ABARK and its opinions into the process because it's the right thing to do," Brumberg says. "You have the public clamoring to be heard, and basically some deals were done behind closed doors -- in specific contravention of the original agreement. Here, you had deals handed to the public as fait accompli." DEP officials told him, "You handle them." To which he'd reply, "I am: One of my jobs is to tee up issues for the public in the right place." His petitions landed on deaf ears.

In January 2002, Florida and Georgia put new proposals on the table, and Struhs announced that the parties were "just micromillimeters" away from coming up with an agreement. ABARK was aghast, McLain says, because both were basically committing Florida to a drought-level stream. By July 2002, ABARK members, with an assist from Brumberg, had convinced the DEP negotiators that the agreement as written was bad for Florida and that the organization had a stakeholder's interest in the process. "We were trying to make sure we have a united front," McLain says. "We said it would be in Florida's interest to have us in the 'Amen' pew."



KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson