Bruce Ritchie: On Florida’s newly appointed Department of Environmental Protection director

Jon Steverson, Gov. Rick Scott’s choice as Department of Environmental Protection secretary, has been an outspoken director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District during his brief tenure there.

Whether he will impress environmentalists with his passion and results at DEP is uncertain.

Scott named Steverson, 39, on Thursday to replace Herschel T. Vinyard Jr., who resigned as expected on Dec. 1 after serving through the governor’s first term. Steverson had served as executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District since 2012.

“Jon has dedicated his career to serving Floridians through the protection of our state’s water and natural resources,” Scott said, “and he is committed to our goal of protecting Florida’s natural treasures so future generations and millions of tourists can enjoy our state’s beauty.”

In 2011, Vinyard told a Florida Senate committee during his confirmation that he was passionate about protecting the environment. But he was criticized later by environmentalists for hiring outsiders to lead his department, proposing to sell state lands and for siding with industries on pollution issues.

Steverson may get criticism from some environmentalists.

That’s because the Scott administration and the Legislature — both Democrats and Republicans — have been committed to policies that are too slow or uncertain about producing results for some environmentalists. And both parties voted to undo protections, such as a septic tank inspection requirement that was repealed in 2012.

Industry has a large voting bloc in the Legislature. The environment has almost no one willing to confront industry.

Nevertheless, Eric Draper of Audubon Florida praised Steverson as “a good public servant who can provide solid leadership for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.”

“He brings intelligence and integrity to an important job,” Draper said.

Steverson has shown true intensity on a few issues during his brief tenure at the water management district.

On the Apalachicola River, Steverson criticized Georgia for its water use while defending the livelihoods of seafood workers in Franklin County.

“The people of Georgia can do a little bit less with their water,” Steverson said during a 2013 U.S. Senate hearing in Apalachicola.

“If their water is low up there,” he added, “it means they can’t drive their favorite jet ski into their favorite little cove and they can’t tie up their boat to the dock. Here, it means these guys can’t make a living.”

Steverson was special counsel and chief of legislative affairs at DEP before being picked in 2012 to replace Douglas Barr, who was not reappointed by Scott to the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

On his first day at the district, Steverson said he’d heard the “conspiracy theories” about a DEP takeover of the water management districts but they’re not true.

Steverson described himself as someone who brings sides together to work out solutions. He also defended the Scott administration’s efforts to speed up decisions on permit applications.

He said faster permitting benefits environmentalists who have opposed the effort. Steverson said uncertainty and delays over permitting could lead to complaints to legislators, who then might be inclined to cut the department’s budget during tough times.

“If we’re working together and we’re working efficiently, it really makes it better all the way around and environmental protections remain intact,” Steverson said. “And if you look at what we passed, there is not a lowering of that regulatory bar.”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bruce Ritchie


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