Show Your Work
by Bob Palmer, Ichetucknee Alliance Advisory Board Member
Think back to sixth grade. Remember those pesky math tests where your teacher wouldn’t give you any credit if the question was “what’s 144 divided by 6?” and you just wrote down “24”. You had to “show your work”. If you didn’t, your teacher would suspect, perhaps with some justification, that you’d snuck a peek and copied your answer from the smart girl sitting next to you.
Well, the State of Florida – supposedly a great place for Open Government – has made NOT showing its work into a new art form. And unless citizens get sufficiently outraged, our “public servants” are going to get away with it.
Consider three recent examples from the world of environmental decision-making where State regulators have gone out of their way not to show their work.
First, there’s Sleepy Creek, the vast Marion County cattle operation owned by billionaire Frank Stronach. In 2014, staff at the St. Johns River Water Management District recommended that Sleepy Creek’s application for massive groundwater withdrawals be denied because “… the applicant has not provided reasonable assurance that the proposed use of water will not contribute to or exacerbate cumulative end-of-permit adverse harm to the ecological structure and functions of Silver Springs and Silver River”. In other words, regional groundwater withdrawals were already ruining Silver Springs. Sleepy Creek’s operations would only make matters worse. There was no more water to spare.
But just last month, the District staff rode to Sleepy Creek’s rescue. In a new report, staff green-lighted the project, and the District Board is now poised to approve the permit on January 10. In 2014 staff thought the Silver system was severely short of water, but by 2016 they had concluded that an additional five percent flow reduction in Silver would cause no harm. Why the U-turn? Apparently, staff now has the benefit of a new groundwater model and new groundwater data. Does the 2016 staff report “show its work”, explaining why it threw out its earlier conclusions? It does not, but citizens are of course free to spend lots of time and money in a very short timeframe fighting with the State to ferret out the answers.
Then there’s the North Florida Regional Water Supply Plan (NFRWSP), a multi-year effort by two Water Management Districts to secure sufficient water over the next 20 years for both people and the environment. This means, among other things, meeting the requirements of any adopted Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs), which are formally approved plans for restoring water bodies suffering from a lack of water. The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers have an MFL because their flows have dropped precipitously in recent years. So do the lakes around Keystone Heights, at the confluence of Alachua, Clay, Bradford, and Putnam Counties. The NFRWSP notes that lake MFLs have been around since the 1990s, but they’re being re-evaluated based on … are you ready …“new science”. With this caveat, the State’s planners simply ignore the current MFLs for the lakes – seemingly a problem given that Florida law requires the Plan to describe how its adoption will contribute to solving all water deficits identified in existing MFLs. On what basis do the drafters of the NFRWSP ignore this requirement in law? We’re left to guess because, once again, the State has chosen not to show its work.
Then, we have the new Florida water quality standards for toxic chemicals, approved in September by a Governor-appointed panel. The new standards are immersed in legal challenges from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and others, in part because the 3-2 vote occurred with vacancies for two commission seats representing environmental advocates and local governments.
Many of the State’s proposed human health standards are less strict that existing standards for contaminated surface waters. Given that an untested probabilistic approach was used in setting these criteria, public health advocates were understandably eager to understand this new science, known in the statistical world as “Monte Carlo Methods”. One experienced statistician wrote to the Department of Environmental Protection employee who developed the new method, asking for clarification of a number of technical points. One question was “how did you fit lognormal distributions (Figure 3-3 to 3-5) to the data in EPA 2014 Appendix E Tables E-13 – E 15?” In short, these were detailed statistical questions whose resolution was essential to understanding the State’s experimental approach. A response came back, not from the State’s technical expert, but from a State lawyer: “The department’s proposed revisions to its human-health based criteria are currently still in litigation; and as a result, 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 which would enable citizens to understand whether the new approach is valid or not.
These three examples reveal a disturbing attitudinal problem. The State’s view is that “This is complicated scientific stuff so just trust us when we don’t show our work”. But by embracing non-transparency, the State is making it nearly impossible for even well-trained scientists to check their work. It’s the sort of behavior that can only exacerbate the widespread distrust that many citizens feel toward all levels of government. And it’s all unnecessary.
So, Florida, could we respectfully ask you to make a New Year’s Resolution? Why don’t you resolve to show us your work, so that we the people might have some clue about why in the world you decide to do what it is that you decide to do?
Bob Palmer is a Board Member of the Florida Springs Institute who lives in Gainesville. He sent this piece as an op-ed to several Florida newspapers.