Gov. Ron DeSantis has done more to protect the environment and tackle climate change in one week than his predecessor did in eight years. Backing up his rhetoric with action, the new governor has made it clear that tackling green algae and Red Tide, expanding and conserving drinking water supplies and addressing the impacts of climate change will be a prime focus of his administration. In Tallahassee, science is no longer a dirty word.
A five-page executive order issued by DeSantis last week sets an encouraging tone with an ambitious agenda. The governor called for spending $2.5 billion over the next four years on efforts to restore the Everglades and protect water resources. He created a task force to identify projects and push for funding to deal with green algae, and he instructed all water management districts to make it a priority to address algae blooms and reduce nutrients in water run-off. He also directed the Department of Environmental Protection to establish a matching grant program to help pay for removing leaking septic tanks and cleaning up the messes they leave behind.
Just as important as the specifics in DeSantis’ executive order is the refreshing emphasis on embracing established science. He wants the green algae task force to rank projects “that are based on scientific data.’’ He is creating inside DEP an office “charged with organizing and directing integrated scientific research and analysis to ensure that all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.’’ He also wants to appoint a chief science officer within the agency. That is a welcome transformation from former Gov. Rick Scott, who decimated DEP with funding and staff reductions and discouraged anyone from uttering the words “climate change.’’
DeSantis avoided a question last week about whether he believes humans are primarily responsible for climate change, as most scientists have concluded. But it’s more important now that he is far more willing to address its impacts than his predecessor and is setting clear priorities. The new governor also has a more sophisticated approach to dealing with green algae and Everglades restoration. He supports building a new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to capture and clean discharges from the lake, just as Scott did. But he also recognizes there are multiple factors endangering water resources, including nutrients in run-off from both agricultural and urban areas, and leaking septic tanks. As the new direction’s exclamation point, DeSantis demanded the resignations of the entire board of the South Florida Water Management District.
For Tampa Bay, the DeSantis environmental effort has a number of positives. It should result in more resources for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. It makes the recent creation of the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, comprising local governments stretching from Citrus to Manatee counties, all the more timely and important in one of the areas of Florida most vulnerable to rising seas. It should complement and enhance the efforts by St. Petersburg and other cities that are leading the way on climate change. And its emphasis on finding new drinking water resources should boost Tampa’s effort to convince the regional water utility, Tampa Bay Water, to embrace the city’s proposal to redirect highly treated wastewater into the area’s supply.
There are plenty of challenges ahead. It won’t be easy for DeSantis to find the money he pledges to spend. Resolving issues with septic tanks will be expensive and politically difficult. Big Sugar remains influential in Tallahassee even if the new governor has demonstrated he will stand up to those interests. And his efforts to fight any off-shore oil drilling expansion will have to be more substantive than Scott’s unenforceable hand-shake deal with a now-departed member of the Trump administration.
Yet in one week, DeSantis has changed the conversation. He has embraced science, and he has invited collaboration. After eight years of darkness, this is a new dawn for smart environmental policy in Florida.