Ron DeSantis unveils sweeping environmental plan to fix Florida’s water woes

The newly minted governor, who angered environmentalists on the campaign trail by dismissing climate change as a significant threat, also promised to establish a resiliency office to address impacts.
Published Jan. 10, 2019|Updated Jan. 10, 2019

Two days after he took office, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled sweeping measures to clean up Florida's troubled waters Thursday, including spending $2.5 billion and launching more aggressive policies to address algae choking Lake Okeechobee and polluting the state's coasts.

The newly minted governor, who angered environmentalists on the campaign trail by dismissing climate change as a significant threat, also promised to establish a resiliency office to address looming dangers.

"The people of Florida wanted to see action and this was action that was requested regardless of your party," DeSantis said in a morning briefing at a Florida Gulf Coast University field station in Bonita Springs, north of Naples. "This is something that can unite all Floridians."

Included in an executive order: increase water monitoring around the state and establish a task force to address blue-green algae, a growing threat worsened by pollution and a warming planet that now regularly fouls rivers flowing from a massive lake half the size of Rhode Island; clean up septic tanks; ban fracking, and focus on more green infrastructure.

DeSantis also ordered construction sped up on a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of the lake and said he would work with federal officials to end polluted discharges.

"I'd like to see no discharges," he said. "We're working with the White House and as difficult as it is, working with the Army Corps [of Engineers] to mitigate that."

The new governor also promised to appoint a chief science officer so "we're doing sound science making sure we're getting ahead of the curve on these issues."

The environment became a central issue in the heated election after algae blooms covered most of the 730-square-mile lake and coincided with a red tide in the Gulf of Mexico this past summer, littering beaches with dead sea turtles, dolphins, manatees and other sea life. As the crisis worsened, scientists complained that they'd been hampered by a lack of data caused by repeated cuts to water monitoring under Gov. Rick Scott, now the Florida's junior senator. Scott also came under fire for repeatedly ordering budget cuts to water management districts and the Department of Environmental Protection.

On Thursday, DeSantis said his spending would surpass Scott's by about a billion dollars.

"That's showing Florida's commitment to getting these issues right," he said.

DeSantis also ordered environmental enforcement moved from the state's wildlife agency to the DEP. Under Scott, enforcement plummeted to its lowest in three decades, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Even before he was confirmed as governor in November, DeSantis began rattling cages when the head of his environmental transition team, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, demanded that the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District resign. The board oversees Everglades restoration for the state and water management in some of its most troubled areas. Two days after the election, board members angered the incoming governor when they agreed to extend a lease to sugar farmers on land slated for the reservoir. DeSantis stopped short of demanding resignations, but earlier this month one board member quit with more than three years left in her term. DeSantis issued his own request Thursday that the water managers resign.

On the campaign trail, DeSantis hammered the powerful sugar industry for wielding too much influence in the state. He remained vague about specific fixes, but firmly positioned himself as anti-Big Sugar. As part of Thursday's order, he instructed water management districts to increase transparency and accountability by providing more data to the state's environmental agency.

DeSantis' new policies were praised by environmental groups that often clashed with Scott, who wouldn't meet with scientists and shrugged off climate impacts.

"It's a little bit like Christmas morning to see all of the things in this executive order, everything from fully funding and accelerating Everglades projects to standing strong on keeping the eastern Gulf of Mexico closed to drilling, to creating an office of resilience," said Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell.

DeSantis' decision to appoint a climate change chief also suggests a big pivot from his earlier position.

"It's amazing to see this as a week-one priority," said Alec Bogdanoff, Florida Resiliency Manager for the American Flood Coalition. "Our environment is our economy and we must take that seriously."

But some said the measures don't go far enough. While it praised some efforts, the Sierra Club pointed out that DeSantis has not indicated he will fight the kind of fracking for natural gas and oil that occurs in Florida. He also did not address pollution tied to farming or agree to reinstate the statewide land planning agency that Scott disbanded.

The organization also questioned moving forward on the Everglades reservoir — which is only a third of the size, and far deeper, than restoration planners originally envisioned — rather than pushing to build a better project. He also made no mention of attacking the causes of climate change or the need for renewable energy.

"Resiliency is in vogue now. Everyone wants to be resilient, but what does it mean? It means building the sea walls higher. But at some point you can't build the sea walls higher," said Sierra Club Florida Director Frank Jackalone. "If we're going to buy time, we need to address climate change."

DeSantis said Thursday's executive order was something his staff has been working on for some time and he intentionally kicked off his tenure to signal he's serious about dealing with the state's environmental problems. He plans to include the $2.5 billion in his budget request to lawmakers due next month, which will iron out more specific spending details. Florida's Senate and House leaders on Thursday vowed to work the new governor. Senate President Bill Galvano appeared alongside him at an afternoon stop in Sarasota and House Speaker Jose Oliva told the Herald he applauded the measures.

"The governor can count on the House of Representatives to work with him to protect Florida's environment," Oliva said in an email.

DeSantis said he also expects support from the president, who frequently visits his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.

"This is his second home so when a Florida issue presents itself, I think it resonates with him," DeSantis said.

Some Democrats also welcomed the measures.

"As a Democrat, it's very encouraging," said state Sen. Bill Montford, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. "Let's roll up our sleeves and get some work done."

But state Sen. Audrey Gibson questioned the lack of details and said she worried $2.5 billion would gobble up the state budget.

"Is the plan to cut into other programs to raise the needed funds?" the minority leader said in a statement Thursday. "Will Floridians lose services in one area to offset the costs for water cleanup?"

Miami Herald staff writers Alex Harris and Samantha J. Gross and Bradenton Herald staff writer Mark Young contributed to this report.