WRAC meetings may return in some form; WRAC-Rec meetings to resume

WEST PAM BEACH — Since 2001, a group of stakeholders representing all of the interests of those who live in the counties encompassed by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) have met monthly for a lively roundtable discussion of the water quality and quantity issues faced by their communities.

WRAC originally stood for Water Resources Advisory Commission and more recently has been called Water Resources Analysis Coalition, and included representatives from South Florida businesses, water supply utilities, agriculture, public interest groups, local government and environmental organizations.

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis took office, all of the WRAC meetings have been canceled, leaving some stakeholders concerned that their views will no longer be considered by SFWMD officials.

At the April 11 SFWMD Governing Board meeting, some governing board members expressed a desire to bring WRAC back in some form. They also agreed that the WRAC Recreation (WRAC-Rec) group, a public forum for anyone interested in recreation on the public lands in the district, should resume quarterly meetings. WRAC-Rec meets quarterly. The group last met in December.

Doug Brown, of SFWMD, explained the Water Resources Advisory Commission was established in 2001 and “sunsetted” in 2017. At that time, it was replaced by the Water Resources Analysis Coalition. Neither WRAC had any power to change or make policy. Both WRACs has similar goals, to provide input to the SFWMD governing from the various stakeholder groups. The main difference is the first WRAC was governed by the Florida Sunshine Laws and the second WRAC was not.

WRAC members were chosen by the SFWMD Governing Board, with some added to balance out all of the various groups of stakeholders. Both forms of WRAC were publicly noticed and open to the public. Both had periods for public comment. Meetings were live streamed online. Minutes were taken. A member of the governing board served as the chair or the facilitator.

During the public comment period, a Loxahatchee man said he frequently attended WRAC-Rec and went to WRAC as often as he could.

“I appreciate the opportunity as a person who uses SFWMD lands,” he said. He noted WRAC improved government transparency, and allowed everyone to hear both sides of the discussion.

He said the public comment period at the SFWMD workshops and meetings is not conducive to public discussion of the issues.

“I run a small business,” he said. “It’s hard to sit through an all-day meeting to talk for 2 minutes.”

He said most of the people in the audience at the SFWMD Governing Board meeting are “either retired, or paid to be here.”

He said WRAC allowed the public a chance to learn about and discuss the issues.

“There’s a lot to learn,” he said. “It’s hard to understand if you are not putting your muck boots on and chasing pigs in the public use area.”

He said by participating in WRAC meetings, he learned about other stakeholders. For example, he said, agriculture provides benefits to the state beyond the food produced. “Those cattle farms are places for the aquifer to be recharged,” he said. “They are places for the deer to breed and for ducks to breed. There is no cattle rancher who is going to let coyotes decimate the deer population.”

He added that the “beautiful roundtable discussion brings a lot of value to this board.”

Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation said the big difference between the advisory and analysis coalition is the analysis coalition is not under the Sunshine Laws. Florida Government in the Sunshine Laws prohibited board members from discussing the issues outside the meeting.

“This is not a one-day-a-month discussion,” she said. “This is a constant lifestyle.

“This is a huge discussion that you find is carried by a small group of Floridians who love the state of Florida,” she said. Those are the people who end up around the WRAC table and bring to you an opportunity to watch an open discussion. This is a conversation that takes time to learn.

She said WRAC is one of the most transparent things about the SFWMD.

“I really encourage you to keep it and get involved with it,” she said.

Celeste DePalma of Audubon Florida said as a member of WRAC she did not think her comments carried enough weight when the monthly report was written for the governing board.

“I don’t believe it is a helpful way to gather balanced feedback,” she said. “It could lead to making decisions made on incomplete information.

“Often times, my own objections and concerns were dismissed or diminished from the final report,” said Ms. DePalma.

She said she does not want WRAC reinstated.

Another WRAC member, Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers of Florida, said when WRAC was set up as an advisory group governed by the Sunshine Law, it made it difficult to talk to others he interacts with about water issues outside of meetings.

“I was under Sunshine in two of the committees and I couldn’t hardly talk to my wife,” he said. “I couldn’t talk to Audubon.”

Mr. Cook said the WRAC meetings were inclusive of all of the stakeholder groups.

“If you aren’t on WRAC, you don’t want to be on WRAC,” he said. “Most people dropped off because of the Sunshine Law.

“You guys are Sunshine,” he told the board members, “Watch the WRAC the Thursday before you meet.

“You’re going to get people from utilities, people from the west coast, Martin County, people who shoot ducks like me, Audubon. You’re going to get the public comments on that. It is the most important thing in this place for you guys.”

“I am one of the biggest stakeholders on Lake Okeechobee,” said Mary Ann Martin, another WRAC member. Ms. Martin is the owner of Roland Martin Marina in Clewiston.

“You have someone today say we have a lot of things to fix,” she said. “A great way to cure a lot of those problems is to use the WRAC. You have so many diversified people on the WRAC, government people, talented people. You can get a lot of ideas and advice just by listening to what they are doing. These people will make your life a lot easier. We are all together. Sometimes it gets nasty, but sometimes it gets really, really good.

“You all are the newbies,” she told the governing board. “You have some great people here who are going to help you, instruct you and lead you to success.”

“I was on the original independent group for the environment before WRAC was created,” said Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. “WRAC has become very politicized. It’s easy for appointees to be directed in certain areas.”

“We will encourage you not to support continuing with the WRAC but fully support the workshops,” she said.

She said the governing board can get “as much input as you want” from the public comments at the workshop meetings.

Mike Collins, a WRAC member who represented Florida Keys and Florida Bay, said before WRAC was established, “the board would have 100 people show up and 50 of them would have torches and pitchforks and say ‘if you don’t do A, B and C we’re going to sue you,’ and the other 50 people would say ‘if you do A, B and C, we’re going to sue.’

“If you stick them in a room and make them talk to each other, they might come up with option D,” he said.

“Get them in a room, educate them, show them what the district can do, what the district can’t do. People sit down, they come up with solutions,” he said.

“I don’t think there has been truly balanced representation on it for some time,” said Lisa Interlandi with the Everglades Law Center. “When change was made to change it from advisory to analysis, I objected to it.”

She said the WRAC meetings take up SFWMD staff time.

“The resources should be devoted to briefing you all and the public in an open forum,” she said.

“I can tell you there is nothing like putting all of the recreational users in the room and working out the differences,” said Bishop Wright of the Florida Airboat Association.

“Without WRAC, WRAC-Rec stands alone,” he added.

Through the WRAC-Rec meetings, “we worked out a lot of differences that weren’t brought here,” he said.

He said there are a lot of people who want to use public land — star gazers, hikers, hunters, horseback riders — and not enough land.

“We need to sit down and work out our differences,” he said, as well as ways to share the available public use lands. He said WRAC-Rec volunteers have helped make the public use lands safer for everyone.

“The sportsmen went out and built paddocks in Dupuis,” he said. “We worked out differences when hiking trails were close to hunting trails,” he continued.

They recently removed some old fences to make airboating safer on the Kissimmee River, he added.

“The issues are complex,” said Beth Lewis of the Nature Conservancy, who was also a WRAC member. She said the stakeholders coming together at the WRAC meetings provided input in a way that the public comment periods at board meetings could not.

WRAC meetings allowed people to come together and actually understand each other, she explained. “It is very difficult for people do that,” she said.
She said she is a former water management district staff member, and that when she worked for SFWMD, she found the stakeholder input very valuable.

“I am not a member of WRAC, but our agency found that type of a forum extremely valuable,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau. He said the addition of workshop meetings for the governing board should not mean the end of the WRAC roundtable forums.

“Workshops are a great tool for you,” he said. “Keeping the WRAC does provide a balanced discussion and a balanced table.

“Agriculture wants to continue to be a partner with water management district,” he said. “We’ve always had a seat at the table with you all. Right now I really don’t see a seat for agriculture up here.” (None of the current SFWMD Governing Board members has a background in agriculture, and the SFWMD seat that is to represent the interior counties has not yet been filled by Gov. DeSantis.)

Pete Quasius of Audubon of Southwest Florida Advocate said he was a member of the first WRAC group, and that he resigned because of the restrictions of the Sunshine Law. “I couldn’t talk to my colleagues about things that were really important without feeling uneasy about it,” he said.
He said the stakeholders forum allows people to meet those with different backgrounds and learn from them.

“We got to meet people we would not have met otherwise,” he said. I sat with the sugar lady. I sat with my ag friends. I sat with the environmental people.

“Avail yourself to this tremendous resource,” he advised the board.
“Form the community that provides the public enthusiasm to provide the public will and the tax base to do what needs to be done,” he said. “The way to get moving forward is to get all of the people engaged.”

“On its face WRAC does seem like a great idea,” said Reinaldo Diza of Lake Worth Waterkeeper. “WRAC was still limited to those who were invited to the table,” he said. “In the summary, the opinions of many people who were at the table were drowned out.”

“I do believe in Gov. DeSantis’ call for transparency and a new process,” said Richard Johnson. “In order to do a good job with the information from the public, you need to hear from all of those and weigh that information.

Chairman Chauncey Goss said he supports the idea of WRAC, but wants to explore the current structure.

“I don’t want to ask our stakeholders who will all be volunteers to be under Sunshine,” said Mr. Goss. “I don’t think it is practical to ask you to be out in the field doing your daily lives and be under Sunshine Laws.

“We do need to have something for all of the stakeholders,” he said.

He said he is not comfortable with the idea of the SFWMD governing board appointing the WRAC members.

“If we are appointing someone to be on the WRAC, we are being exclusionary,” he said.

“There is no doubt we need a forum like this,” said board member Carlos “Charlie” Martinez. “Gary Ritter doesn’t feel that ag has a seat at the table. I am committed to making sure that ag will always have a seat at the table.

“It seems like there was a common denominator on people who didn’t like WRAC,” he said. “It’s up to us to make sure that all stakeholders have a voice in WRAC.”

Board member Charlotte Roman said she likes the idea of WRAC-Rec which is a group of dedicated sportsmen who love Florida and love the outdoors.

“I would like to look at a new approach to this that is transparent, that is accountable,” she said adding that she encourages more citizen input and stakeholder input by email.

“The WRAC is awesome,” said board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippish, “but it’s only as good as the people up here. It takes a lot of checks and balances.”

“I think you should only be allowed on it for a certain amount of time,” she added.

“WRAC-Rec should continue while we try to figure out,” she added.

“We represent 8 million people,” said board member Cheryl Meads. “Twenty is insignificant compared to 8 million.

“I don’t want to appoint two people,” she said. “Everyone who wants to come should come and talk through the issues and problems.”

Board member Jay Steinle said WRAC, “is an avenue we need for stakeholder input.

“There are only so many hours in a day and we can’t talk about all of the issues at SFWMD governing board meetings,” he said.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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