The St. Johns River Water Management District has been gutted of some of its most experienced scientists in the last two years.
Shortly after taking office, Florida Gov. Rick Scott fired the directors of the five water districts statewide and cut funding for the districts by 40 percent. Bye-bye, expensive experts.
What's worse, however, is the change in attitude that the St. Johns district has undergone in the past few years. The districts have taken a ceaseless political pounding from Scott, who couldn't care less about water resources. To survive, the St. Johns and its colleagues have — at least to a degree — abandoned their role as water watchdogs and have caved in to demands to be "business friendly."
That's code, of course, for making something despicable sound like the right thing to do.
A perfect example is the recent eagerness of the St. Johns director to approve a request from Niagara Bottling in Groveland to pump an extra 1.5 million gallons over a five-day period to send water to victims of superstorm Sandy in the Northeast.
Niagara has a permit to pump an average of 484,000 gallons a day — nearly 177 million gallons a year — from the Floridan Aquifer in Groveland — a permit that never should have been granted. Allowing private companies to profit from a dwindling natural resource is plain foolish.
A Niagara lawyer on Oct. 31 asked the district to let it start pumping an extra 300,000 gallons a day, for a total of 1.5 million. He claimed it wouldn't hurt water resources and asked that it not be counted against the company's cap.
The bottler told the district that its Allentown, Pa., pumping facility is "experiencing an extended power outage." The effects of the superstorm were keeping Niagara from "providing bottled water for needed hurricane relief efforts."
Niagara's Tampa lawyer stated: "The impact of the storm threatens the public health, safety and welfare of tens of millions of our fellow citizens."
Listen closely: In the background, the orchestra is beginning to play "America the Beautiful."
"As a water bottler, Niagara has and continues to play an important role in providing relief to the disaster-stricken areas," wrote Tampa attorney Edward de la Parte Jr.
By the time they get to "Above the fruited plain," the music will swell to a forte and the cheering will start.
Never mind that the nation's disaster managers insisted that there wasn't a shortage of bottled water after Sandy raked the Northeast. St. Johns Director Hans G. Tanzler III, whose family business is a real-estate equities holding company, signed off instantly.
A company possibly trying to make profits off a natural resource in a time of disaster and a Jacksonville real estate mogul/lawyer — yeah, those are the guys with the best interest of the public in mind when it comes to conserving water for those who live in Florida.
Niagara has given water for free in the past during times of disaster and isn't shy about touting its donations. But this time, Sentinel reporter Kevin Spear, who detailed the situation in a story in Sunday's edition, couldn't get a straight answer from either Niagara or the water district about whether the bottling company wanted to make a gift of the bottled water or just profit from the misfortune of others.
Either way, the issue is moot. The bottling plant in Groveland couldn't get geared up quickly enough to pump and bottle the water.
But what an alarming message this sends to the public. A private, for-profit business got an "emergency" permit to pump one of Florida's most critical natural resources simply by writing a letter that tugged at the heartstrings but provided no hard evidence of need.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake. Lauren invites you to connect with her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake