TALLAHASSEE — With three short sentences, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday delivered a public rebuke to a Senate budget proposal to change the way state agencies advocate for federal Everglades policy and affect the way state dollars are released for restoration projects, and accused legislators of leaving his agencies “in the dark.”
“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” DeSantis said. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the (Everglades Agricultural Area) Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.
“Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.”
The primary effect of the measure would be to force the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that works most closely with the federal government on Everglades Restoration, to change its position and advocate for more water for agriculture users if it wants to receive state funding for restoration projects.
Water managers and Everglades advocates testified to the Senate committee on Wednesday that they had been blindsided by the proposed policy change. They said the shift would advantage farmers over what they have sought as a “balanced” approach among all stakeholders.
“Why was the bill introduced last Friday evening?” asked Eric Eikenberg, head of the Everglades Foundation. “We had no indication that it was coming. There was no agreement to the provisions of this bill. In fact, this bill eliminates everything you all voted for.”
He said that since legislators passed Senate Bill 10 in 2017 in an attempt to respond to the economically disastrous surges of blue-green algae that have haunted coastal communities, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on a new set of rules that would reduce the amount of polluted water it discharges from Lake Okeechobee into tributaries to the east and west.
The plan, developed over the last three years, would reduce the discharges by more than a third, and it would triple the amount of water sent south to recharge the thirsty Everglades and restore healthy conditions to Florida Bay.
Although the rules have been in development for three years, the change is being proposed this year, at a time when Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, is running for agriculture commissioner.
Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have argued that the new reservoir would deprive them of the water they need for irrigation, and some have sued the federal government over the issue.
DeSantis, who appoints the board of directors of the water management district, has made Everglades restoration a priority of his administration. The governor created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to combat the toxic blooms and pushed for dedicating an unprecedented amount of state funds for restoration and water-quality efforts.
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Senate President Simpson responds
Simpson shot back with a statement, focusing the blame on the Biden administration for not directing federal infrastructure money to help to build the reservoir. (Biden announced $1.1 billion in infrastructure funds to pay for Everglades restoration projects in the next year.)
He denied that the bill changes “the goals of the (Everglades Agricultural Area) reservoir, or go back on any commitment this state has made to the environment during my 10 years of service,” and he rejected the idea that legislators should have warned the governor’s office of its plans.
“No senator has to check in with a state agency before filing a bill,” he said. “I report to the people of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, not appointed bureaucrats.”
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ben Albritton, a Republican citrus farmer from Bartow, would require that, in order to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding, the district must certify to the Senate and House that it officially recommends the Army Corps does not cut water levels to or “adversely affect” farmers.
Albritton said the proposal simply requires the district to be more accountable to legislators, noting that “about 70 percent of the district’s budget comes from the state of Florida.”
He also told the dozens of fishing guides and clean water advocates who traveled to the meeting to oppose the bill that they “have been misled.”
Senate Appropriations chairperson Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she “completely disagreed” with the governor’s statement.
“I do not think that we’re ramming anything through the budget process,” she said. “This bill is codifying a lot of what’s already happening in practice. We’ve put great efforts and money over the last few years to work on a lot of his priorities as well as the rest of the state’s priorities on funding many of the environmental things. Many of them are near completion. We’re in a great spot. So, unfortunately, I disagree. We’re being prudent, and I think it’s responsible.”
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation, who voted for the bill, said she expects the disagreement between the governor and Senate will get resolved.
“I do believe that there’s a way that we get to it, but I do believe that there’s other interests playing in here,’’ she said. “And so want to get to the bottom of what that is.”
Water Management District is critical of the bill
At a Thursday meeting, leaders for the South Florida Water Management District savaged the bill.
Drew Bartlett, executive director of the district, said this bill would dilute funding for the governor’s priority for the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir and force the water management district to promote a policy it doesn’t agree with.
“These policy changes essentially ask us to give a water supply guarantee and then do what we can with the environment after that,” he said.
He also noted that the major Senate appropriations bill that passed included a line holding funding for the reservoir, along with several other key restoration projects, unless the 2508 bill or one like it passes.
“It’s basically holding the entire South Florida ecosystem hostage over this bill,” Bartlett said.
Chauncey Goss, chairperson of the South Florida Water Management District, called the bill an affront to the progress the district and state have made in restoration over the past few years. He said the district first heard of this bill when it was filed late Friday night.
“Why wouldn’t you consult the expertise of this organization before you decide you want to reroute the water supply for 9 million people?” he said. “It doesn’t strike me as being excellent government.”
Although the Senate version of the bill passed, it doesn’t have a counterpart in the House, and it will become part of the budget negotiations.
But because Senate leaders chose to push through the change as a “conforming bill” to a Senate appropriation, rather than a policy bill that must receive extended debate and approval, lawmakers cannot amend it but only approve or reject it when it comes to a vote.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.
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