Why Didn’t We Throw Tomatoes at Ernie Marks?

Last week, Ernie Marks, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, faced a crowded room at a Rivers Coalition meeting in Stuart. He’d joked about getting hit with tomatoes. He did get some sharp questions, including from Bullsugar, but he stood up and fielded them all.

Although he joked about throwing tomatoes, SFWMD's Ernie Marks earned respect from clean water activists

We heard from some that we missed our chance to grill the district.

Maybe we did, and more on that in a moment. But certainly Marks–and SFWMD–deserved respect for showing up. And on whatever terms, by choice or by law, the district is an essential partner in Everglades restoration, including the keystone project to end discharges into our rivers. Even through an occasionally tense Q&A, Marks looked his neighbors in the eye and answered our questions directly. So no, we didn’t throw fruit.

But we did miss an opportunity.

Twice Marks was asked, Why haven’t you released modeling on the amount of land needed for treatment for the EAA reservoir? His answers sounded reasonable (it takes a long time, and we’re working to get it done by January). We didn’t ask a third time, but those answers aren’t reasonable. Here’s why:

The model we referred to is named in the legislation: DMSTA (dynamic model for stormwater treatment areas). DMSTA estimates the size of a filter marsh needed to clean a volume of water, so it guides the amount of land needed to support the EAA reservoir. Right now the proposed reservoir site leaves zero acres for treatment. None. So it can’t clean any water. We shouldn’t have to wait ‘til next year to find out what it will take to make this project work.

And Marks wasn’t completely honest with us. It doesn’t take months to run DMSTA. Hydrologists who’ve run the model themselves told us that speed is one of its biggest advantages–even moreso with the updated DMSTA2 version. One said, “DMSTA runs extremely fast – 35 years of daily flow and phosphorus simulations take just a few minutes once the model is set up.” Another already set up and ran it. It took three weeks.

Is SFWMD is dragging its feet? Or have they run the model and kept quiet about the results? Especially if it found the project needs much more land, the sugar industry would prefer to hide that information from lawmakers and the public.

Does the sugar industry have that much influence over the district? It does. Only weeks ago news broke that a sugar lobbyist was reviewing and redacting SFWMD reports. District employees were effectively waiting for US Sugar’s approval to release information to the public.

The Waiting Game

The sugar industry publicly opposes the EAA reservoir, sending water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, and any real changes to a water management system that works perfectly for them as-is. Certainly US Sugar and Florida Crystals don’t want Marks or his agency to speed up the modeling, because stalling increases the chances that the project will fail–and they don’t have to stall for long.

That’s because planning for January’s legislative session is happening right now, and if lawmakers don’t know what’s needed to make the EAA reservoir work, getting it won’t be on the agenda. Outgoing senate president Joe Negron championed this project. Will anyone in Tallahassee make it a priority after his term ends? The sugar industry doesn’t think so. They’d like SFWMD to quietly run out the clock, keeping the project out of public view and off the 2018 legislative agenda. So far it’s working.

Marks seemed last week to want to be upfront with the public, but his organization has been openly serving a private industry that wants its business conducted behind closed doors. He’s in a tough spot.

There’s a way you can help: Sign up to see and comment on the upcoming South Florida Environmental Report (SFER)–due out on October 23. For twenty years, SFWMD has delivered an accounting of what it’s done, what it’s spent, and what results it’s gotten. (Last year’s was secretly edited by US Sugar lobbyist Irene Quincey.)

Registering, reading, and asking questions in a public forum can ensure that the EAA reservoir and other critical projects are planned and delivered in the open, and not stalled or corrupted by a private agenda. Click here to register.

We’re not bringing tomatoes to Marks’ next public address, either. He deserves a chance to rebuild trust between his agency and the public. But we’ll bring more sharp questions, and we’d like to hear better answers.