Trying to Understand the Structure of the SFWMD within Government, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Florida Statutes books on shelf. Public photo.
Florida Statutes books on shelf. Public photo.

If there is one thing I have learned in my seven-year stint in local government, it is that for the public, the structure of government and how it works is unclear. In my opinion, this happens due to many reasons, but first and foremost is because government as a whole is terrible at being open and explaining itself, perhaps preferring to function behind a shroud of confusion. Also, governments’ sense of responsibility to communicate with the public is often nonexistent or skewed at best… plus communicating is expensive…This situation is compounded by the fact that every year there are new laws, and every few years new elected officials coming in….so the public is constantly having to “catch up.”

To make a point, let me give a simple example from the Town of Sewall’s Point, where I live and am a town commissioner. Prior to 2006 the town did not have a full-time town manager. In 2006 the town charter was amended by the commission creating a manager/commission form of government as opposed to commissioners being in charge of different departments. I was elected in 2008. For years, many citizens did not know this change had occurred, and their expectations were functioning off the old system and their expectations were not met. They came into the commission meetings very upset. The town did not “advertise” the charter changes. I was too new to really understand what was going on….it took me a year or so to figure it out, and the public—

People are too busy trying to live their lives, raise their children, and “put bread on the table,” to follow every move of government be it local, state or federal. Add to this that government itself is a terrible communicator, and what happens? The mechanisms are not in place for government to work….This is how I see it anyway. The answer? Better communication and learning to understand how things work.

A few months ago when the South Florida Water Management District was ignoring a desperate and pleading public that had come before them begging for the purchase of the US Sugar Option Lands through Amendment 1 monies, to help save the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and Calooshatchee, I drove to West Palm Beach and met with high level officials. They were very nice but it was a frustrating meeting. Basically I asked them, “What are you doing?” “Why are you acting like this?”

The answer?

“Commissioner, you know the power isn’t in our hands anymore anyway…”
“What do you mean?” I inquired.

A conversation around the table ensured:

SFWMD: “Well after the debacle that occurred 2008-2010 with then Governor Charlie Christ, the recession, and the attempted buyout of all of US Sugar’s lands, basically a water district was trying to purchase a corporation…..the Florida Legislature got fed up.  So later,  in section 373.556 of Florida Statutes, the Florida Legislature made sure the District would never be in a position to do that again….Significant legislative changes have occurred related to water management budgeting with substantial ramification for Water Management District land transactions. In 2013, Senate Bill 1986 provided that certain District land transaction should be subject to the scrutiny of the Legislative Budget Commission. As this bill renewed the authority of the Governor to approve or disapprove the SFWMD budget, as with all water management budgets of the state, we can no longer do things we have done in the past like oversee giant land purchases using the monies from our ad-valorem taxes…There is a lot more to it but that’s the main difference now. You are talking to the wrong people….”

I stood there just staring…..”I didn’t know this gentlemen, so how do you expect the public to know this ? Are you telling me, the SFWMD has no power to purchase those Sugar Lands?”

“I am telling you the legislature is in charge of the budget and we don’t have enough money to buy the lands, and couldn’t without their approval….”

“So why don’t you explain that to the public?” I asked.


Long awkward silence….

The reply was more or less: “It’s best not to get involved in such a discussion…..”

I lectured them on the importance of communication and education and said they certainly still have influence even if they say they “do not” …..but this did go over particularly well… the meeting ended. I shook their hands. I felt like an idiot. I drove home.

Since that time I have been trying to learn more…..So I read about the history of the Water Management Districts in Florida.

Florida's five water managements districts map DEP.
Florida’s five water managements districts map DEP.

To me it seems that originally when the water management districts were created in the 1970s they were allowed to levy taxes from the public in order to be an independent entity of water knowledgeable citizens  advising the governor as to how best manage water resources.  Also, the Dept of Environmental Protection was just evolving at this time so when the water districts were formed they did not work “under” or “beside” the DEP like today.

Over time, the laws have changed and our water management districts  have become an arm of the governor and his or her people in the state legislature. The SFWMD is and has been losing its power. Especially since 2013. This  loss of influence has politicized the structure of Florida’s water management districts to a level that “the people” no longer have a voice locally with their districts, and they don’t know they are now expected to go to their state legislature;  and even if they did, their local delegation is one in hundreds in that structure  that would need to be convinced to change water policy (for land purchase south of Lake Okeechobee for the health of the estuaries, for instance.)

I have learned too through this journey that really today about ten people run our state: Right now it is our governor, Rick Scott: cabinet members, Adam Putnam, Dept of Agriculture; Pam Bondi, Attorney General; Jeff Atwater, Chief Financial Officer; “leadership,” Speaker of the House: Steve Crisafulli; President of the Senate, Andy Gardiner; and the committee heads of the senate and the house which are only a few “tapped” people. (People who have agreed to conform or are smart enough to walk the razors’ edge.)”Leadership” keeps all elected officials  in line by allowing them, or not allowing them, to be on, or to chair, certain committees, or by allowing, or not allowing their bills “to be heard”… also by discouraging new candidates from running for office if this is against “leaderships’ master-plan.” This behavior is worse in the republican party than the democratic party, but they are all encouraging conformity rather than leadership.

So how can we best communicate with our government?


Let’s keep educating ourselves,  and can anyone say “revolution?”

Seal of Florida
Seal of Florida



2013 DEP letter explaining changes to SFWMD structure: (

2011 DEP letter leading up to changes in 2013 letter above:(

DEP Florida’s Water Management Districts:(

SFWMD, Florida’s oldest water management district: (

Florida Statures Section 373 (

34 thoughts on “Trying to Understand the Structure of the SFWMD within Government, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. We , the people , are and will be locked out of decisions by not being informed of the rules of engagement. Only CLUB members are able to play in this game of control. You are spot on. Follow the money and who is control of the money and , specifically on this water issue. The next steps are the constant delivery of petition to that BIG BOSS , who will grow tired of constant knocking of their door. They will give us our answer , if we overwhelm them with social media and take this national in coordination with groups in our neighbor states who see the same issues and unite them. I know this is not new but I am talking about serious coordination and turn the masses on them. Jesus talked about the woman who got mercy from the judge as the judge realized that she came to him constantly and gave her mercy because she would not stop asking . We must keep asking, asking, demanding, seeking , and not be content until we get our solutions. Unite, I have been working on my knowledge and now have access to the social media GURUS who will help us. Politicians fear social media bad news, it spreads like wild fire and cannot be stooped.

    Ed Ed Jeffrey

  2. Wow JACQUI!!!! I LOVE YOU!!!!! YOU SAID THE R WORD!!!! WE NEED ONE! We have dictatorship going on here in Florida and that needs to change!

  3. I think everytime a politician makes a public speech they should be wired to lie detector machine and when they tell a lie electric wires would shock them where it will hurt the most.–get your bucket of beach sand and SAVE OUR LAGOON

  4. Jacqui:”….. an independent entity of water professionals advising the governor.”  Is a bit of a stretch.  I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who has served on the SFWMD Governing Board who might be considered a water professional.  In fact, my own observation is the members of the Board are clearly not qualified to serve, and were probably appointed based on a willingness to follow orders and not make waves.Imagine what our district would be like if the board included the like of Mark, Ray, Gary and Maggie.  What a pleasure it would be to attend intelligent debates about how to best accomplish well thought out goals rather than what we have today – horse trainers, real estate agents, and King Ranch employees with absolute conflicts of interest, displaying woeful knowledge and an inability to even read scripts that are pre-prepared for them.Chas

    1. Hi Charles. I do think the original intentions for the WMDs were honorable. Over time they and the system went awry.i agree with you about some of where we are today. Thank you for your insights.

  5. So in short we should have been fighting to buy the land in Tally. And if we are to acquire land N.S.E.W. of the lake we need to take it to Tally.

  6. jacqui. i don’t know if i should laugh or cry. First of all thanks for writing this because I can tell you -no one knows this because the entire time we were going down to SFWMD I kept asking if these guys even had the power to do what we had asked and apparently the answer was no. Imagine the time off, gas money , expense to all of us. I have written many blogs about SFWMD and mostly about at the end I felt like we were sent in a circle and no one took any responsibility for our toxic discharges. Not them, not our legislators, not rick scott, not any of the people you mentioned above. In the end it came down to the ACOE Opening up the gates again.
    We have to stop wasting time and come up with a workable plan to effect chance. Real change.

    1. Cyndi none of your or my or anyone’s time was wasted. Definitely the legislature heard us indirectly. It just would have been nice if they made clear the changes in the laws and powers of the water districts in 2013… You are right though going forward we need to scrutinize and understand the system on a deeper level.

  7. 2 days ago a group of manites swam under my boat . I have never seen such a large group–I would guess between 30 and 50. If you wonder where the wadeing birds are –they are all here. schools of minnows are all along our shores. They eat the algie that grows on the barnicles. Tonight shrimpers line both sides of our causeway. They have been filing 5 gallon buckets to the top. 4 years ago our lagoon was DEAD. It is just now starting to come back to life. I have spent much time and money too and I very much hope the time I am takeing to tell you all this is not a wasted effort

    1. Brent this is wonderful news. Your efforts are never wasted but I am no one important and influential enough to get your theories out to the water districts. I will do my best though and I appreciate all you are doing to educate everyone including me.

  8. If when it rains and the rainwater runs over shells in indian mittins and down into the lagoon all the fish will come . To me all the things I am talking about are NOT theorys but things I see everyday.

  9. Charles—I feel the same way– The position of the State of Florida was firmly behind the gillnetters and all the special interest (like resterants) who bought and sold fish. Private fishermen out voted them a thousand to one and I believe the State set out to destroy the environment for the private fishermen. They could not do this if intelligent people were in key positions. Growing up in florida fishing under 2 sets of laws —-limits of sizes and numbers caught on species of fish for private fishermen and ABSOLUTLY NO LAWS FOR COMMERCIAL FISGERMEN. Believe me many time I thought –how can this be fair. My impression of government from an early age is they could not be more ROTTEN. But now I think they have out done themselves.

  10. jacqui you got at the very heart of the problem in this post. thanks for all the hard work and the backbone to publish it. what are the next steps? identify reforms? here’s 3:

    1 – new rules for limits to campaign and superpac contributions. this is the most important reform of all, we are tilting at windmills until there are limits and transparency.
    2 – reform the SFWMD. it has become neutered and politicized, especially under rick scott. the SFWMD operates like a sugar subsidiary south of Lake O. we get no say in water supply or drainage even though it impacts us directly and we support it with our tax dollars. there needs to be a way to ensure other stakeholders besides agriculture and development have a seat at the water/drainage table – and access to all SFWMD documents and resources so we know what is really happening (the fine print in SB1986 is a perfect example). sunshine laws should apply, conflicts of interest should be addressed.
    3 – the pre-legislative session lobbying and bill making needs sunlight. special interests not only write the bills, they decide which of their lackeys in the state legislature will have positions of power. the whole legislative session is pre-orchestrated. this is not remotely in the interest of the people of florida.

    i wonder if constitutional amendments could fix these 3 things? it would be a good place to start. well, that and getting a reservoir and more treatment marshes in the EAA.

    1. Chris thank you for your words and ideas for moving forward. I am interested in your ideas and I too think a good place to start would be for the public to really “see” what our ad valorum taxes are used for each year by the Sfwmd. Specifically. Not a general budget with a pie chart. I think we will learn our water district is underfunded and that projects are stop and start. I too think the interdependence of the Sfwmd and the ACOE for building projects is highly disfunction and that even if Florida’s political corruption were less, unfortunately cerp is not going to come together as planned…I think a radical change is necessary but I am uncertain how to achieve this. I do think campaign and special interests must be changed in some way as well as transparency or a better said truth, timelines and yearly simple updates for the public—not annual reports the public cannot interpret…constution amendments are good with intension but in the past they are passed by the public then perverted by the legislature like the lottery for education and Amd. 1 right now. For change to occur the WHOLE public has to see and want water quality and quantity over agriculture interests that only serve a few and do not help the whole. They have to make it more attractive for the state govt to allow Ag lands to hold water rather than produce traditionally. This is tricky as it is tied with federal supports esp with sugar….in the end Ag. has to make money off a change in their land use or they are going to build houses… A giant water farm? Sorry to ramble. Your ideas are good and solid. Mine still forming. Chris,we should have lunch….thanks again.

  11. Reblogged this on cyndi lenz and commented:
    Most important information regarding SFWMD. They couldn’t have helped to buy the land if they wanted because that power was taken away. Amazing that they forget to tell us.

  12. 30to 40 years ago we had schools of mehadden twenty miles long. Everything from whales to king mackerel–to snappers and more dependend on them. I remember fishing when I was a kid and it was like the whole ocean was nothing but king mackerel. We filled trash cans full. If you waunt radical change put calcium beach sand in the lagoon. Menhadden feed on the algie that will grow on it.

  13. Another radical change would be if government employees must summit to takeing lie tetector test like bank employees do. Considering the fact we are 18 trillion in dept and it is obvious the taxpayers are being robbed I don’t think it is an unreasonable thing to ask

  14. Jacqui, Have you considered that maybe they were lying to you that day; hoping that you (and the rest of us) would just GO AWAY and quit asking all these questions! Essentially they’ve been lying to us all along haven’t they, so why stop now? I don’t disagree with everyone’s excellent take on this, in fact I felt the same way at first. Even knowing that betrayal is one of the worst indignities a person can be subjected to, it’s always felt like a “shell game” to me.

    So, if we’re “talking to the wrong people” now, who are we supposed to ask these very important questions of? I bet even if we went to Tallahassee we’d get the same response. It’s just going to be denial and subversion tactics for as long as they can get away with it, or until we hold their feet to the fire.

    This month’s SFWMD Agenda in Ft. Pierce has land purchasing deals getting approved, so I don’t believe that “the power is not in their hands anymore” and we should not stop asking them to buy the land and send the water South!

    1. Dear Ezra, good insights. I only believe them as I finally got my hands in the Florida Statue mentioned in my blog. It does state that the Sfwmd budget is since 2013 subject to the gov. ‘S approval which it wasn’t before… The first two letters/links I reference at the bottom of the blog also allude to this shift one fr 2011 and one from 2013.
      Nonetheless it is their job to make recommendations and advise the gov. They cannot totally abdicate their responsibilities. Also historically the public has relied on them and we still do— so there is a responsibility there as well.

      1. I think their –Sfwmd– land purchases on the agenda for this Thursday are for much less money than would be required to purchase the U.S. Sugar option lands— (smaller purchases) and that is why they are “allowed” to do them…

  15. Greetings, it is Ed Jeffrey. Thought this would be of interest to you. BMAA is the culprit in the islands causing dementia, like a WASTING DISEASE. This cynobacteria , green algae, some have large amounts of BMAA in it. So, the food chain is affected. Please read. Thanks for your work and congrats on your new position with the STATE.

  16. Greetings, it is Ed Jeffrey. Thought this would be of interest to you. BMAA is the culprit in the islands causing dementia, like a WASTING DISEASE. This cynobacteria , green algae, some have large amounts of BMAA in it. So, the food chain is affected. Please read. Thanks for your work and congrats on your new position with the STATE.

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