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St. Johns Water District Appoints New Executive Director

The St. Johns River. Photo courtesy the University of North Florida.
The St. Johns River. Photo courtesy the University of North Florida.

The St. Johns River Water Management District has a new executive director.

She arrives on the heels of a shake-up of its leadership that left five senior positions open.

90.7's Amy Green has been following the story. She spoke with Crystal Chavez about the new executive director.

CRYSTAL: Who is she?

AMY: Ann Shortelle is executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District. Before that she was director of water policy at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

She is highly regarded, although some environmentalists worry she is too close to the DEP.

CRYSTAL: Let's back-track a little bit. Five people left in a big shake-up. Did anyone see this coming?

AMY: It's unclear.

What we do know is that the four senior managers submitted letters of resignation the same week the water district's executive director also stepped down. He had announced his resignation in March. Two of the four announced their resignations "in lieu of termination."

Together the five had nearly a century of experience at the water district. They were involved in land management and ensuring the region's future water supply.

Many environmentalists like the St. Johns Riverkeeper believe the departures are a sign of growing state influence in regional water decisions. They believe their conservation work conflicted with the Scott administration's growth-oriented agenda, and they were forced out.

CRYSTAL: Is more state influence in regional water decisions a bad thing?

AMY: Florida's five water districts were established to remove politics from the decision-making over the state's environmental resources. At the time the arrangement was seen as unique nationally and a model.

I talked with St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. She says more centralized control makes way for political influence in these decisions.

"These decisions instead of based on sound science they actually could be more influenced by special interests who are using their relationships, using their presence in Tallahassee to influence decisions that should be made closer to the watershed."

CRYSTAL: Amy Green, now the water district is back in the news. The Orlando Sentinel reports a massive development planned for Deseret Ranch is being forwarded to the state for consideration despite environmental concerns. Is there a link between this project and the mass exodus?

AMY: I talked with Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. He doesn't think so. He believes what happened at the St. Johns River Water Management District is part of a bigger picture.

Lee says soon after Gov. Rick Scott took office the South Florida Water Management District, Southwest Florida Water Management District and Suwannee River Water Management District all experienced similar turnover.

"What's now happened is the St. Johns district has been swept or purged in the same way that the other districts were earlier."

That means four of the state's five water districts all have undergone this turnover. Lee says the Northwest Florida Water Management District has experienced similar change but is less active because it receives less funding.

CRYSTAL: What does the governor's office say about these claims by environmentalists that they're playing politics with the water districts.

AMY: The governor's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Here's state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Lauren Engel disputing any state influence in the turnover at the St. Johns River Water Management District.

"The St. Johns River Water Management District executive director has sole authority over their hiring decisions."

The water district's acting executive director issued a statement saying it wouldn't be productive to elaborate on the departures.

CRYSTAL: So, Amy Green, how does this affect me?

AMY: The St. Johns River Water Management District is like a gatekeeper to your drinking water.

One of the things the water district does is grant water use permits. The water district controls who gets to draw from your drinking water supply and how much.

This is important because as you know the region is growing fast, straining the water supply.


Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.
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