Florida, ‘show your work’ behind water changes

By Bob Palmer
January 6, 2017
Florida Today

Regulators won’t reveal the science or calculations behind new environmental standards.

Think back to sixth grade.

Remember those pesky math tests where your teacher wouldn’t give you any credit if you didn’t “show your work.”  Otherwise, he’d suspect that you’d peeked and copied from the smart girl next to you.

Well, Florida’s bureaucrats have turned not showing their work into an art form.  Consider three recent examples of environmental decision-making where state regulators have declined to show their work.

First, we have the new water-quality standards for toxic chemicals, approved in September – standards immersed in legal challenges from the Seminole Tribe and others.  Many new standards are less strict than existing standards for contaminated surface waters.  An untested approach underlies these criteria, so public health advocates were eager to understand this new science, known as “Monte Carlo Methods.”

One experienced statistician wrote to the state employee who developed the new method, asking for clarification of various technical points.  A state lawyer, not a state scientist, responded that because of ongoing litigation, “department staff are not at liberty to discuss the details of the proposed criteria.”

So, even though the state has used controversial science to justify a controversial outcome affecting the health of all Floridians, it refuses to provide basic information enabling citizens to understand whether the new approach is scientifically valid.

Does the 2016 report “show its work,” explaining why it threw out the staff’s earlier conclusions?  No. But citizens are free to spend lots of time and money pursuing records and data —- and in a very short timeframe — to ferret out the answers.

Then there’s the North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan, an effort by two water management districts to secure sufficient water, long-term, for people and the environment.  The plan must meet requirements for “minimum flows and levels” (MFLs) meant to restore water bodies that suffer from depletion.  Keystone Heights’ lakes, for example, have been subject to such minimum flows and levels since the 1990s.

But the new water-supply plan notes that those standards being re-evaluated based on “new science.” With this caveat, the state planners decided to simply ignore these minimum water levels – even though Florida law still requires them address all identified water deficits.

On what basis do the drafters  ignore the law?  We’re left to guess once again because the state won’t show its work.

These three examples reveal the state’s disturbing attitude that “This is complicated science, so just trust us.”  By embracing non-transparency, the state is making it impossible for even well-trained scientists to watchdog their work – an attitude that can only exacerbate the distrust so many citizens feel toward their government.

So, Florida, please show us your work. That way, we the people might have some clue about why you decide what you do with our water and environment.

Bob Palmer is a Board Member of the Florida Springs Institute who lives in Gainesville 

 

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