Florida voters had finally had enough of recurring water quality issues last year. Blue-Green algae covering Lake Okeechobee and flowing to coastal estuaries. Persistent red tide blooms covering four different areas of the state, sending dead sea life onto white sand beaches. So when the 2018 campaigns went into high gear, so did water advocates, including many residents and visitors who found themselves talking to candidates for the first time ever about how important clean water was, not just for the environment, but for the economy of our community, our region and our entire state. Some candidates paid attention. Newly inaugurated Florida Governor Ron DeSantis surprised many in his first week in office with an executive order aimed at cleaning up Florida’s water woes.
DeSantis heard Florida voters. They want change in how the state handles environmental and water policies.
DeSantis, accompanied by First Lade Casey DeSantis and Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez and a host of environmental advocates, toured Little Hickory Bay Thursday morning before signing Executive Order 19-12: Achieving More Now For Florida’s Environment. The order implements major reforms to protect Florida’s environment and water quality.
“Our water and natural resources are the foundation of our economy and our way of life in Florida,” Said Governor DeSantis. “The protection of water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing our state…I’m taking immediate action to combat the threats which have devastated our local economies and threatened the health of our communities.”
The order calls for:
– $2.5 Billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and protection of water resources (a $1 Billion increase in spending over the previous four years and the highest level of funding for restoration in Florida’s history).
– The Establishment of a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, charged with focusing on expediting progress toward reducing the adverse impacts of blue-green algae blooms now and over the next five years.
– Instruction to the South Florida Water Management District to immediately start the next phase of the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project design and ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves the project according to schedule.
– The Creation of the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency charged with organizing and directing integrated scientific research and analysis to ensure that all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.
– The Appointment of a Chief Science Officer to coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis needs to ensure alignment with current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians.
–The addition of a water treatment component to the C-43 reservoir that will send water into the Caloosahatchee River.
–Oppose off shore drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.
–Directs the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a septic conversion program with a local government match requirement.
–Moves environmental crime enforcement from Florida Fish & Wildlife to the DEP.
Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation CEO Ryan Orgera and Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel held discussions with the Governor Thursday. “We are very encouraged by the Governor’s action in calling for effective, consensus-driven, solutions-oriented leadership at the SFWMD,” said Orgera. “Organizations like the SCCF, fighting day in and day out for effective water management and natural resource policy in the State of Florida, need strong partners in Tallahassee. Our new governor has shown that he has the political will to throw down the gauntlet, and steady for the long political battle ahead.”
“By his actions today, our new governor has taken clear and decisive leadership on behalf of Florida’s citizens,” said Wessel.
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg praised the governor’s actions. “After decades of delay, Governor DeSantis has today placed Florida on a trajectory to complete the EAA Reservoir, not in 10 years, but in four. He has clearly heard the cries of Floridians who have had enough of perennial algae outbreaks.”
Initially unveiled at the Florida Gulf Coast University Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station in Bonita Springs, DeSantis made additional stops at Sarasota and Stuart where he called upon the entire governing board of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to resign. His letter to board members stated, “it is time for a clean reset of the leadership of the Board.”
All nine positions on the board were appointed by former Governor Rick Scott. The board voted in November to extend a lease to sugar farmers just two days after an election and months before it expired. The agenda item was added late the day before the meeting. At that meeting, Congressman Brian Mast, who has served as the head of DeSantis environmental advisory committee, attended the meeting at the request of the Governor-elect, and asked that the board postpone a decision until the new governor had time to review it. Following the meeting, Mast blasted the board as “arrogant” and called on all of them to resign.
One SFWMD board member, Melanie Peterson, resigned effective January 1. Of the remaining eight, four have said they will not resign. Three members terms expire in March.
Florida law seems to give the Governor the authority to remove them from office. “The governor shall have authority to remove from office any officer of said (water management) district in the manner and for cause defined by the laws of this state applicable to situations which may arise in said district.”
Meanwhile the Florida Senate President Bill Galvano was researching the Senate’s role in removing board members, according to his spokeswoman.
Congressman Brian Mast issued a press release in response to SFWMD board members refusal to resign, saying, “Yesterday the Governor made clear that he does what he says: he has a bold vision to fix Florida’s environment and improve our water quality. What’s also clear is that the board members of the South Florida Water Management District do not share this vision. The arrogance displayed over the past 24 hours by the board is indicative of how they have operated for the better part of the last decade—without transparency and with disdain for the people of South Florida who have been made to suffer through lost summer after lost summer. They have failed to exercise even the most basic, legally-required level of transparency, and therefore, should be removed for cause.”