Deconstructing An Agency: Dollars And Data

By Keith Rizzardi[1]

Excerpt from Money, Mandates and Water Management: Foreshadowing a Florida Disaster, publication forthcoming in Volume 21, Issue One of the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law

Hard lessons of history, already learned by the Netherlands, New Orleans, New York, California, Texas, North Carolina, and South Florida, establish the importance of managing, maintaining and investing in water resources infrastructure. Water managers know the crisis will come. But there is always room for disagreement over how, exactly, to manage water resources, and how much to spend.

In South Florida, however, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has become less attuned to its physical and financial risks, and less responsive to the public concerns. A review of the SFWMD’s own publicly available documents reveals a historic deconstruction of the agency, its resources, and capacity. The citizens of South Florida have been placed in a highly vulnerable position.

The following pages of this article relied extensively upon the SFWMD’s own documents, especially the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs).[2] A second important document used for this analysis was the annual South Florida Environmental Report (SFER), in which the SFWMD consolidates its required and voluntary reporting of water quality and project-related data, and subjects it to rigorous peer review.[3] These documents help to reveal how recent years have changed the agency.[4]

Of special note, these changes cannot be characterized as a simple byproduct of a swinging political pendulum. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, was governor from 1990 to 1998,[5] but Florida has been led by Republican governors and legislatures ever since: Governor Jeb Bush served from January 1999 to January 2007; Governor Charlie Crist served from January 2007 to January 2011; Governor Rick Scott served from January 2011 to January 2019.[6] Data related to the new administration of Governor Ron DeSantis is not considered in this article. The data shows that the district budget, staffing, and emergency reserves have all reduced dramatically in the last decade.

A. Lower Revenues

For past administrations, funding of the SFWMD served as a way to accomplish projects to benefit South Florida’s flood control and water quality. After Lawton Chiles led the effort to settle a protected lawsuit between the state and federal government over water quality violations in the Everglades,[7] the Everglades Forever Act secured dedicated funding sources. The Act required the construction of the Everglades Construction Project, consisting of a vast system of wetland treatment marshes.[8] A portion of the toll revenue from Alligator Alley, the highway running east-west across the Everglades, was dedicated to these projects.[9] An Agricultural Privilege Tax (which was modified over time) required a payment of approximately $25 to $35 per acre.[10] The Act also included an ad valorem tax of $0.0001 per dollar of property value, representing $30 for a $300,000 property.[11] Demonstrating further commitment to the cause, voters passed two constitutional amendments in 1996, one creating an Everglades Trust Fund to manage those monies[12] and another requiring polluters to pay for their impacts to the Everglades.[13]

During Governor Bush’s administration, funding for the SFWMD significantly increased. Governor Bush proudly announced his plans to accelerate Everglades restoration through his Acceler8 initiative.[14] The agency began using bond mechanisms, including Certificates of Participation worth $546 million used to finance its Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects, including reservoirs, stormwater treatment areas, and pump stations.[15]

During the Crist Administration, a nationwide decline in the real estate market in 2007 caused a downturn in tax revenues.[16] Since the SFWMD was funded in part through ad valorem property tax revenues, the loss of home values reduced the budgeted revenues. Nevertheless, the Crist Administration continued to use the SFWMD to pursue projects, including an attempt to acquire 180,000 acres of lands from the U.S. Sugar Corporation.[17] Expanding and refinancing the Bush Administration’s bond finance mechanisms, the plan would have cost in excess of $2 billion.[18] The ultimate agreement, however, was far smaller. The SFWMD closed on a “River of Grass” deal in October 2010 to acquire nearly 26,800 acres, at an investment of $194.5 million.[19] The agreement also included options to purchase another 153,000 acres should economic conditions allow in the future.[20]

The SFWMD never recovered from the real estate crash. In 2010 and 2011, at the end of the Crist Administration, ad valorem tax revenue averaged $425 million per year.[21] Rising property values could have generated more revenue if tax rates had not changed. Instead, in the years thereafter, the Scott Administration reduced property tax rates for the period from 2012 to 2017 and revenues held flat.[22] During this period, ad valorem revenues averaged just $270 million per year.[23] That level of tax income resembles that of 2002, when the 16-county district had 1.38 million fewer residents.[24] Adjusted for inflation, recent ad valorem revenues resemble those of 1996, when the district had 2.5 million fewer residents and far less responsibility.[25]


The Scott Administration did not exercise the land acquisition option purchased by the Crist Administration, avoiding some significant expenditures.[26] Although the Florida Legislature supplemented ad valorem taxes with additional funds, the modest uptick in total agency funding after 2013 remains less than in 1998, using inflation adjusted dollars.[27]

B. Fewer Personnel (and Increased Workload)

The SFWMD’s budget decisions affected staffing at the agency.[28] Data regarding the total number of authorized positions provides an important insight. The SFWMD’s personnel positions gradually increased from 1,651 in 1995 to 1,771 in 2000, remained constant until 2006, climbed again to a peak of 1,933 in 2011, and fell to 1,475 in 2017.[29] Thus, total staffing at the agency is 10 percent lower than the levels held in 1995, and 24 percent lower than the 2011 peak.

sfwmd_total_authorized_emplyeesData is available for individual units within the SFWMD for the period from 2008 to present due to an internal reorganization and restructuring of personnel in 2008. Although operations and maintenance personnel have increased 10 percent (from 650 in 2008 to 719 in 2017), the number of personnel in every other unit has trended downward from 2011 to 2017.[30] In turn, these trends reduced the agency’s capacity to perform its statutory functions.

1. Reduced Regulatory Scrutiny

Budget and staffing changes meaningfully affected the agency’s implementation of its regulatory authority. For example, the SFWMD Regulation Division works on permits related to ground waters, wells, surface waters, and springs.[31] It tracks the numbers of permits issued and the enforcement actions taken. Of course, the total number of permits reviewed will vary annually due to economic and other factors. Still, total permit applications range in the thousands per year.[32]


Staff reductions mean fewer people review each permit. For example, as part of the permitting process, staff must read and understand an application. They must compare the project to the statutory and regulatory criteria and may request additional information about the proposed project.[33] The application may require special permit conditions. Permit review can be a time-consuming task. A comparison of the total number of permits issued with the number of the permit reviewing staff suggests that individual workload is on the rise, which may mean less regulatory scrutiny.[34]

2. Less Enforcement

A permitting scheme must be enforced to be effective. Some people might act without obtaining required permits. The permitting process does not end when a permit is issued. Projects must be constructed, operated, and maintained pursuant to the permit conditions. SFWMD staff ensure that permittees comply with their duties.[35] If staff uncover violations of permit laws or conditions, then the enforcement process begins with a Notice of Violation (NOV).[36] While NOVs are not the only way enforcement activity is tracked, they are insightful because they represent an early stage of the process when a person or organization is first notified of a potential problem.


This data came from the SFWMD’s enforcement tracking spreadsheet and includes the annual sum of all NOVs of any kind: environmental resource permits that regulate water quality, consumptive use permits that regulate water supplies, wetland impacts, or other. [37] Enforcement activity abruptly fell in the Crist and Scott Administrations.

C. Spending the Savings Account

In recent years, the SFWMD has embraced a strategy of “spending down” reserve funds. In other words, the agency intentionally spends previously saved money as a way to reduce taxes while still paying for project expenditures, as it explained in its financial documents:

The District has reduced taxes and directed its fiscal resources towards its core mission of flood control, water supply, water quality, and natural systems. The District has established a five-year spend-down plan to dedicate accumulated reserves and cash balances toward further improvements in water storage and water quality in the northern and southern Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds, while ensuring sufficient reserves remain available to address hurricane or unanticipated flood control infrastructure emergencies.[38]

This was an intentional policy decision. Florida law authorizes the SFWMD to maintain reserves as part of its budget process, stating that the SFWMD “must set forth the proposed expenditures of the district, to which may be added an amount to be held as reserve.”[39] The Governing Board decides how much money to have left at the end of the year, but finding detailed information about how the reserves are implemented is difficult.[40] A search of the agency website for the term “spend down” of reserves yields no result. In fact, the basic terminology used to describe reserve funds underwent a substantial change in 2011,[41] as follows:


Changing terminology inhibits a full understanding of how reserve funds are used, but the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) reveal some details. Balances held in reserves declined, as did revenues.[42] The “unreserved” and “unassigned” general fund balances are of particular note. In the 2010 CAFR, the SFWMD explained:

The focus of the District’s governmental funds is to provide information on near-term inflows, outflows, and balances of spendable resources. Such information is useful in assessing the District’s financing requirements. In particular, unreserved fund balance may serve as a useful measure of a government’s net resources available for spending at the end of the fiscal year.[43]

In 2017, SFWMD used nearly identical language to explain the term “unassigned fund balance.”[44] A chart showing the “unreserved fund balance” (the term used before 2011 term) and “unassigned fund balance” (the term used in 2011 and thereafter) reveals how the agency fundamentally modified its finances.[45] During the period from 2012 to 2017, an agency with total revenues averaging $412 million was left with an average year-end balance of just $5.6 million.[46]


According to the SFWMD’s own financial disclosures to the Legislature, it was “ensuring sufficient reserves remain available to address hurricane or unanticipated flood control infrastructure emergencies.”[47] The literature on financial management suggests otherwise. To put this chart in context, an unrestricted reserve fund of three-to-six-months of expenses is common in non-profit management.[48] A similar window can work for business planners, who are attentive to the availability of cash for lending.[49] The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) argues Government agencies facing disaster risks need even more money in reserve:

Appropriate Level. The adequacy of unrestricted fund balance in the general fund should take into account each government’s own unique circumstances. For example, governments that may be vulnerable to natural disasters, more dependent on a volatile revenue source, or potentially subject to cuts in state aid and/or federal grants may need to maintain a higher level in the unrestricted fund balance. Articulating these risks in a fund balance policy makes it easier to explain to stakeholders the rationale for a seemingly higher than normal level of fund balance that protects taxpayers and employees from unexpected changes in financial condition. Nevertheless, GFOA recommends, at a minimum, that general-purpose governments, regardless of size, maintain unrestricted budgetary fund balance in their general fund of no less than two months of regular general fund operating revenues or regular general fund operating expenditures.[50]

An evaluation of the SFWMD’s reserve funding reveals that its unassigned fund balances routinely fall far below the minimum GFOA recommendations. In other words, SFWMD does not maintain two-months of operating expenses.[51]


While the SFWMD’s funding of the unassigned reserves appears low,[52] the district also has categories of reserves that are “assigned,” “committed,” or “restricted” for specified purposes.[53] Although the line items in the SFWMD’s CAFR do not reflect an emergency or hurricane reserve, the preliminary budget documents submitted to the Florida Legislature declare that the Governing Board currently has a policy of keeping approximately $60 million in reserves for hurricanes and emergency relief.[54] Assuming these funds exist, and are accounted for as cash and investments,[55] then the SFWMD may be budgeting in a manner slightly above GFOA’s minimum recommendations.[56] In a world of billion-dollar risks, that may not be nearly enough.

D. Underfunding Infrastructure Maintenance

While questions exist as to the adequacy of the SFWMD’s reserve fund budgeting, the reserves are not needed unless unexpected and unbudgeted expenses occur. But, according to the agency’s own Inspector General, the budget for even routine maintenance of existing infrastructure is inadequate. South Florida must expect the unexpected.

In a 2018 audit of the SFWMD’s operations and maintenance (O&M) of its capital assets, the Inspector General assessed the agency’s process for inspection and replacement of structures.[57] The audit acknowledged that the agency is engaged in an exercise of triage, with funding below the levels needed:

Our analysis of the O&M capital program priority project list and our review of the District’s assessments of its water control structures, canals, and levees disclosed that increased funding should be considered for replacing / restoring / rehabilitating the District’s water control structures, canals, and levees to ensure that integrity and reliability of south Florida’s water management system. Specifically, the annual adopted budget for the O&M capital program, from Fiscal Year 2013 to Fiscal Year 2017, averaged about $53 million per year and is allocated to high risk projects. Our review of the O&M capital program priority project list disclosed that, at the current funding levels, no action has been taken on 117 of the 209 (56%) projects. Further, based on District assessments, about $88.5 million is needed annually needed to maintain, replace / refurbish the District’s aging water control structures ($60 million), restore canals ($18.5 million), and rehabilitate levees ($10 million), which are considered high risk / high priority.[58]

In other words, the Inspector General concluded that the SFWMD’s investment in its own flood control mission fell short by $35.5 million annually. To its credit, the SFWMD has tried to minimize the risk by prioritizing the structure maintenance based on the levels of risk associated with them.[59] But, the risk may be underestimated because it does not fully account for the challenges of climate change and rising seas. As the Inspector General report notes, SFWMD staff evaluated canal conveyance between 2006 and 2008 and determined that a more careful evaluation of the system design was (and still is) needed[60] because drought and flooding will increase:

The intensity of rainfall events is also changing. The District’s data indicates that there has been an increase in heavy downpours in many parts of the region, while the percentage of the region experiencing moderate to severe drought increased over the past three decades. In the future, more frequent intense rainfall events are projected to occur, with longer dry periods in between. While periodic heavy downpours may increase overall precipitation totals, much of the water may be runoff that is eventually lost to tide.[61]


The increased storm intensity and the associated increase in use of drainage pumps may already be underway. According to the SFWMD data in the CAFR, volumes of water moved in 2016 and 2017 were very high, surpassing five million acre-feet of water annually.[62] Over time, as pumps and other systems work harder, age, and break down, maintenance needs will increase. While staffing of the O&M unit seems roughly on pace with the increase in water moved, whether O&M staffing is adequate in the first place, or able to deal with the changing climate or the next crisis, is yet to be learned.

[1]. Keith W. Rizzardi is a Professor of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, and previously worked for the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Department of Justice as an environmental lawyer.

[2]. The annual CAFRs, including detailed schedules to supplement the analysis with data, is available at S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Budget and Finance Report, (last visited Sept. 18, 2019).

[3]. The annual SFER, including its data-rich appendices, is available at S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Scientific Publications & SFER, (last visited Sept. 18, 2019).

[4]. A third document of note is the comprehensive regulatory database maintained by the Water Resources Department, which tracked enforcement cases from 2000 to present. The database of enforcement data is available as an excel spreadsheet file obtained by public records request. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Enforcement Output (Feb. 9, 2019) (on file with author).

[5]. Kenneth Hood “Buddy” MacKay Jr. briefly served as Governor after Governor Chiles died in office.

[6]. Fla. Dep’t of State, Florida Governors, (last visited Sept. 18, 2019). Although Crist served as a Republican Governor, he later became an independent, and eventually, a member of the Democratic Party. (last visited Sept. 18, 2019).

[7]. See, e.g. United States v. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., 847 F. Supp. 1567 (S.D. Fla. 1992).

[8]. Fla. Stat. § 373.4592(6) (2018).

[9] . 1994 Fla. Laws Ch. 94-115, § 8 (codified in part at Fla. Stat. § 373.45931 (2018)).

[10]. Id. § (6)(c)1.

[11]. Id. § (4)(a).

[12]. Fla. Const. art. X, § 17 (establishing the Everglades Trust Fund to be administered by the South Florida Water Management District, or its successor agency, consistent with statutory law.).

[13]. Fla. Const. art., §7(b) (“Those in the Everglades Agricultural Area who cause water pollution within the Everglades Protection Area or the Everglades Agricultural Area shall be primarily responsible for paying the costs of the abatement of that pollution.”). When the citizens first passed this provision as “Amendment 5” on a 1996 ballot initiative, the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion to the Governor:

Amendment 5 is not self-executing and cannot be implemented without the aid of legislative enactment because it fails to lay down a sufficient rule for accomplishing its purpose . . . Amendment 5 raises a number of questions such as what constitutes “water pollution”;  how will one be adjudged a polluter;  how will the cost of pollution abatement be assessed;  and by whom might such a claim be asserted.

Advisory Opinion to The Governor—1996 Amendment 5 (Everglades), No. 90042, 706 So.2d 278. (Fla. 1997).

[14]. Dexter Filkins, Swamped: Jeb Bush’s fight over the Everglades, The New Yorker (Jan. 4, 2016),

[15]. See generally, S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Office of Inspector Gen., Audit of the Uses of Series 2006 Certificates of Participation Proceeds, Report # 07-25 (Feb. 13, 2008), (explaining use of funds for construction projects to benefit the Everglades); see also, Part V.C, below, discussing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

[16]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017) II-19 (including a chart showing the real estate market decline based upon the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s House Price Index).

[17]. Jim Loney, Florida Approves $1.34 Billion U.S. Sugar Deal, Reuters (Dec. 16, 2008),

[18]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Reviving the River of Grass About Certificates of Participation and Bond Validation (July 2009),; see also, Charles V. Stern, Pervaze A. Sheikh, & Remy Jurenas, Cong. Research Serv., R41383, Everglades Restoration and the River of Grass Land Acquisition (Aug. 25, 2010),

[19]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., South Florida Environmental Report (2011) 23,

[20]. Press Release, South Florida Water Management District, SFWMD Board Approves Affordable Plan for River of Grass Acquisition Amended Everglades land purchase agreement addresses changing economic conditions (Aug. 12, 2010),

[21]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017) VI-8,

[22]. See, S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2012-2017),

[23]. Id.

[24]. Id.

[25]. Calculations based on Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator, using January 2017 dollars. CPI Inflation Calculator,

[26]. Amy Green, South Florida Water Management District Terminates Sugar Land Purchase Option, WGCU (Dec. 18, 2018),

[27]. Revenues from Intergovernmental sources were $286 million in 2008, but averaged $95 million in 2009-2010, averaged $58 million from 2011 to 2014, and averaged $139 million from 2015 to 2017.

[28]. Employee numbers come from Schedules 19 and 21 of the CAFR (2017), CAFR (2010), and CAFR (2004). There are modest discrepancies for numbers in the 1990s. This analysis uses data from the 2004 CAFR for the 1990s.

[29]. Id.

[30]. Id.

[31]. See, e.g. Fla. Stat. §§373.203–373.250 (2018) (consumptive uses of water), §§373.302–373.342, (regulation of wells), §§373.403–373.468 (management and storage of surface waters), and §§373.801–373.813 (Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act).

[32]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Enforcement Output (Feb. 9, 2019) (on file with author).

[33]. See Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 40E-1.603(1) (2014) (“(a) Within 30 days of receipt of an application or notice of intent, the District shall review the application to determine whether all information needed to evaluate the application has been submitted. The District shall notify the applicant of the date on which the application is declared complete. (b) If the District determines that the application is incomplete, the District shall request the information needed to complete the application within 30 days of its receipt. The applicant shall have 90 days from receipt of a timely request for additional information to submit that information to the District.”).

[34]. Compare SFWMD Total Authorized Employees chart with SFWMD Permit Applications chart.

[35]. See Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 40E-1.702(3)(b) (“The District shall ensure that violators do not gain an economic advantage over competitors by circumventing District permitting requirements. Enforcement action shall be designed to remove any economic advantage resulting from the failure to comply with District permits and rules.”).

[36]. Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 40E-1.721(5) (“Upon receipt of a field inspection or investigation report and upon a finding of probable cause, District staff are authorized to issue a Notice of Violation providing instructions for compliance with Chapter 373, F.S., and all applicable District rules.”).

[37]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Enforcement Output (Feb. 9, 2019) (on file with author).

[38]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017),

[39]. Fla. Stat. § 373.536(5)(e) (2018).

[40]. The Board knew what it was doing. See, Kim Miller, No Tax Increase in Water District Budget, but Opposition From Unusual Source, PALM BEACH POST (Sept. 25, 2018), (quoting Board member Jim Moran: “When I first came on the board we had $400 to $500 million in what I call unrestricted reserves, but we’ve spent that down for restoration projects and other projects to what is now below $60 million and we are still only collecting the same amount we were eight to nine years ago.”).

[41]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2004–2018),

[42]. Id.

[43]. See, e.g. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2010) II-12,

[44]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017) II-10, (“In particular, unassigned fund balance may serve as a useful measure of a government’s net resources available for spending at the end of the fiscal year”).

[45]. Id.

[46]. Id. at VI-5; S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2010) VI-5,

[47]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017),

[48]. Nonprofits Assistance Fund, Nonprofit Operating Reserves and Policy Examples (2010), (“A commonly used reserve goal is three to six months’ expenses. At the high end, reserves should not exceed the amount of two years’ budget. At the low end, reserves should be enough to cover at least one full payroll including taxes.”); see also, Fiscal Strength for Nonprofits, Developing your Reserve Fund Policy A Template and Guide for Nonprofits (June 2018),

[49]. Dave Ramsey, Business Emergency Fund?, (last visited Sept. 18, 2019); Hal Shelton, How Much Cash Should a Small Business Keep in Reserve?, SCORE (Oct. 2, 2018)

[50]. Gov’t Fin. Officers Ass’n, Fund Balance Guidelines for the General Fund,

[51]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2004–2018),

[52]. Minimum recommended reserves are based upon expenditures listed in the CAFR (2017) Schedule 2, multiplied by .166667 (the GFAO’s recommended two months). Actual reserves come from the CAFR (2017), Schedule 3.

[53]. Restricted reserves can be spent only for specific purposes, such as those stipulated by creditors imposed by law. Committed reserves can be used only for the specific purposes determined by a formal resolution of the District’s Governing Board. Assigned reserves represent amounts that are constrained by the District’s intent to be used for specific purposes, but are neither restricted nor committed, and are made by the District’s Executive Director or his or her designee. See S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017) III-23,

[54]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Fiscal Year 2018-19 Preliminary Budget Submission Pursuant to Section 373.535, Florida Statutes (Jan. 15, 2018),

[55]. According to its combined balance sheet, the District’s available cash and investments, as of September 30, 2017, was $61,343,995. See S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2017) V-13,

[56]. Id.; see also, S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Standard Format Tentative FY2014 Budget Submission Pursuant to Section 373.536, Florida Statutes (Aug. 1, 2013),

[57]. Office of the Inspector Gen., Audit of Operations and Maintenance Capital Program Project #17-06 (Apr. 12, 2018),

[58]. Id. at 12.

[59]. Id.

[60]. Id. at 36.

[61]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Climate Change & Water Management in South Florida 15 (2009),

[62]. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist., Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (2016–2017),