Guest Column
Why is Department of Environmental Protection inept four years after DeSantis took office? | Column
For anyone who considers protecting Florida’s waterways from their worst enemy — ourselves — this will be the most important election we vote in.
An aerial photo from the summer of 2016 shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart.
An aerial photo from the summer of 2016 shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart. [ GREG LOVETT | AP (2016) ]
Published Aug. 18, 2022

Does clean water matter to you? Dead manatees. Poisonous toxic algae blooms. Canals sullied by foul runoff. Marshes paved over. Springs siphoned off for profit, then polluted. Septic tanks leaching into our waterways.

The list goes on: Red Tide killing sea life. Solid waste being spread on our farms. Phosphate mines draining into our rivers. Exploratory oil wells drilled into our natural lands. Seagrass wiped out in our estuaries. Sewage pipes bursting under our streets.

Ed Killer
Ed Killer [ Provided ]

These are headlines from the last two years. They’re not from a distant generation prior to the Clean Water Act in 1972. This all happened under the watch of Gov. Ron DeSantis. For anyone who considers protecting Florida’s waterways from their worst enemy — ourselves — this will be the most important election we vote in.

In January 2019, two days after being sworn into the state’s highest office, DeSantis wanted to make one thing clear: He would be the clean-water governor. He hopscotched around the state making announcements and creating entities to do what the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) no longer was — protecting Florida’s waterways.

In March 2019 at the Nathaniel P. Reed National Wildlife Refuge in Hobe Sound, DeSantis appointed the Blue Green Algae Task Force, a board of five of the state’s most esteemed clean-water scientists. It took them barely seven months to draft a plan of how to undo the damage wrought to waterways by former Gov. Rick Scott and others.

DeSantis and the Legislature chucked about 87% of the task force’s recommendations in the circular file.

So here we sit, three years and one pandemic later, with a blueprint from our brightest minds on how to fix Florida’s complicated water quality problems and no one in a position of leadership seems to care.

On Aug. 3, a dozen of the state’s most influential environmental groups released a progress report on where we are with the Blue Green Algae Task Force’s October 2019 recommendations. In summary, the report suggests the DEP is:

• Not doing its job

• Wasting time on ineffective programs it claims will lead to clean waterways

• Misspending taxpayer money on ineffective projects — so far about $4.1 billion.

The report also criticizes the Legislature, the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The report examines seven areas laid out in the task force’s recommendations:

• Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs), designed to clean waterways using a variety of tools;

• Agriculture and best management practices

• Onsite treatment and disposal of human waste

• Sanitary sewer overflows of human waste

• Stormwater treatment

• Innovative technologies and applications

• Blue green algae blooms and human health.

Here are three of the over 25 failures outlined in the report:

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On Basin Management Action Plans: The costs to remove harmful nutrients are too high — up to $3,781 per pound of nitrogen, according to one DEP report; not enough water storage is planned for waterways receiving too many nutrients; population growth projections are not incorporated into DEP planning.

On septic systems: Regulatory controls are not in place and the Legislature has funded only $114 million of the $6.4 billion needed to replace infrastructure.

On blue green algae blooms and human health: Of the 33 sites with public access to Lake Okeechobee and surrounding waterways when a bloom was present, 71% had no signs to warn the public against contact with the water.

Of the five minor successes listed in the report, two for agriculture and best management practices include: DACS encouraged farmers to voluntary enroll 83% of the acreage into the Best Management Practices program, including all farms over 100 acres. However, I think Best Management Practices should be mandatory and enforced.

It wasn’t DEP’s intention, but the agency’s presentation to the task force during an Aug. 4 meeting in Fort Pierce reinforced the report’s findings.

Paul Gray, scientist with Audubon Florida, was one of several who issued public comment in complaint of the DEP’s BMAP program.

“The BMAP for Lake Okeechobee began in 2014 and is supposed to be in effect until 2034. The DEP is saying we’re not going to be able to get there by then. We have BMAPs in one silo, CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) in another silo. We need to integrate all the plans we have.”

John Cassani, the Caloosahatchee Waterkeeper, said one flaw with the DEP program is its inability to account for changes through time.

“Population growth is having a deleterious effect on water quality. A DEP report in 2010 listed 1,900 miles of impaired waterways. In 2020, that had grown to over 9,000 miles.”

Election Day nears. Floridians must look in a mirror and ask themselves what clean water means to them and if they ever want to see it achieved. Who we vote for will determine the future condition of Florida’s waterways.

DeSantis began his run on the right foot. What he failed to do was follow up with substantial requests for the Legislature to address water quality. He failed to direct state agencies — DEP, DOH and DACS — to do anything. He didn’t re-establish authority to enforce standards within the agencies. The standards must be clear and measured, and progress must be seen. Penalties must be painful and deter unlawful behavior.

Instead of approaching the state’s water problems like a Floridian, DeSantis approached them like a politician.

Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer for TCPalm, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.