Many old Florida natives like me used to believe we were living in paradise, a special place "full of flowers," as Juan Ponce de Leon had observed. Our peninsula was mostly pristine and undeveloped, more sand dune than pavement, more earthy green than kitschy pastels, more shoreline than seawall.
We old-timers were awed by our wilderness. We instinctively understood that healthy bodies of water, including our springs and wetlands, were our essence and major drivers of our economy.
In his 1998 book, Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida, Mark Derr wrote: "In these past one hundred years, man has reshaped and relandscaped the peninsula, leveling forests, draining marshes. The process continues at such a rapid rate that many residents of more than a decade barely recognize the areas around their homes. ... The tale of Florida's development is often sordid, marked by the greed of people intent on taking whatever the land offered and leaving nothing in return."
Today, paradise is spoiled. And we voters have ourselves to blame. We are left with, among many other problems, choking algal blooms, dying fish populations, red tide and human health concerns.
Election after election, with rare exception, we choose lawmakers who place little, if any, value on the long-range health of the environment. These officials, Republicans and Democrats alike, are more beholden to the interests of businesses than they are to the interests of ordinary voters. For decades, our water management districts — charged with protecting out waterways — have allowed business lobbyists, especially those who work for agriculture, to write regulations that circumvent the public good.
Last month, during the 34th annual Everglades Coalition Conference in Duck Key, former Gov. Bob Graham, an environmentalist, did something unique for a politician. He acknowledged that he had failed to do enough to prevent the catastrophes the South Florida Water Management District has allowed to occur year after year because of its policies. While acknowledging his failures, Graham also gave current and future lawmakers a path forward.
I quote him at length: "The current federal law that regulates federal action … was written in 1948. That's a long time ago, and it was written primarily — almost exclusively — for the goal of flood control. ... We now have a much broader palette of issues and the federal statute that authorizes the Army Corps to be engaged with managing those issues needs to reflect that broader palette.
"So the first federal assignment (for attendees) is to initiate the process of rewriting the 1948 flood control act on which all the actions of the Corps of Engineers are now predicated.
"I'm going to be self-critical. I was in the Senate for 18 years. I failed you. I should have done this while I was there. I didn't. Now it's your responsibility."
The hopeful news is that Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to be where Graham never was. One of DeSantis' first moves was to appoint replacements for SFWMD, which oversees Everglades restoration and Lake Okeechobee efforts.
DeSantis also issued an executive order that creates a chief science officer. This office will prepare the state for rising seas and seek solutions to algae outbreaks. These moves are remarkable in light of former Gov. Rick Scott's anti-science actions.
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In addition to offering progressive views on the environment, DeSantis is doing what his GOP colleagues historically would not do: find substantial amounts of money for the environment. At two different stops in the state last week, he unveiled a $625 million plan to be spent on water resources.
"I don't want this to take forever," he said in Broward County. "I think there's a sense of urgency."
Even more, he vows to spend $2.5 billion on water resources over the next four years.
"What we're doing in the budget is historic," he said. "It will have a very big impact on the quality of life for Floridians."
Apparently, the new governor wants to restore some of the old pristine Florida he enjoyed as a child growing up in Pinellas County. Whatever his motivations, Floridians should support his early environmental initiatives.