UPDATED to include South Florida Water Management District board resignations
Gov. Ron DeSantis got headlines and photo opportunities Thursday for a major executive order he issued on the environment, but it’s missing a key component: preventing pollution at its source before it sparks green slime in the public’s waters.
Instead, DeSantis directs his Department of Environmental Protection to use billions of taxpayer dollars (which must first be appropriated by the Legislature) for a series of ongoing engineering projects designed to clean up the sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff which comes off industrial agriculture operations around Lake Okeechobee and south of Orlando.
The so-called “nutrient” pollution is pumped out of the lake by taxpayer-funded public works west to the Gulf through the Caloosahatchee River and east to the Atlantic through the St. Lucie River, where it fuels toxic algae outbreaks that kill marine life, make people sick, depress coastal real estate values, and chase tourists away. Photos of dead sea creatures and foul green slime have given Florida bad PR internationally for more than a year and were a campaign issue in the fall election.
Under the law, the huge cattle operations, sugar fields and vegetable farms that sprawl over Florida’s inland areas are subject only to voluntary cleanup measures called “Best Management Practices.” Another contributor to the nutrient pollution: the state allows tons of “biosolids” – treated sewage – to be spread over vast tracts of land as fertilizer.
On Thursday, DeSantis asked for all the appointed board members of the South Florida Water Management District – which oversees Everglades restoration and Lake Okeechobee – to resign so he could start fresh, he said in a statement.
DeSantis’s approach differs markedly from that of his Democratic opponent in the razor-thin governor’s race, Andrew Gillum, who pledged to hold agricultural operations accountable for the pollution coming off their land “through whichever means are necessary,” saying “no corporate profit is worth sacrificing our clean air and water.”
In his order, DeSantis directs state environmental agencies to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to step up a series of engineering projects planned in the Everglades and elsewhere, including large reservoirs to store the polluted runoff instead of pumping it to the Atlantic and Gulf. He directs the DEP to secure $2.5 billion for Everglades restoration over five years. The money to pay for Everglades restoration is shared between the federal and state governments, and the Florida Legislature would have to appropriate Florida’s share.
DeSantis’s order creates a state task force to study toxic algae outbreaks, saying:
“This task force should identify priority projects for funding that are based on scientific data…to provide the largest and most meaningful nutrient reductions in key waterbodies, as well as make recommendations for regulatory changes.”
The order – which includes directives to the Department of Health, the Department of Economic Opportunity and Visit Florida – also calls for a stepped-up state grant program so that homes which rely on septic tanks can connect to sewer plants, with local governments matching the money. Several attempts to do this have failed in the Legislature over the years. Water testing around the state shows that septic tanks foul water supplies because they (especially older ones) leak if they aren’t inspected and pumped out routinely.
DeSantis’s environmental approach in his Thursday executive order also differs from that of outgoing Gov. Rick Scott because it emphasizes science as a guidepost.
Scott, now a U.S. senator, famously barred state environmental employees from using the words “climate change” in state documents, although he later denied it. DeSantis doesn’t use the words “climate change” in his executive order, either, but he does order DEP to create an “Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection to help prepare Florida’s coastal communities and habitats for impacts from sea level rise” and also set up an 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.”
He directs DEP to appoint a “Chief Science Officer” whose role will be to “coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis.”
In his order, DeSantis reiterated his campaign promise that his administration will oppose offshore oil drilling and fracking. Today’s order made no mention of promoting alternative energy sources like wind and solar power, but it’s possible the administration will address those issues in a separate policy announcement.
Predictably, environmental groups were cautious in their response to the brand-new governor, who they will work with for the next four years. They were notoriously critical of Scott, who worsened environmental protection by eviscerating environmental staff and enforcement. All state environmental groups except the Everglades Foundation endorsed Gillum over DeSantis.
“There are a lot of good things in here,” Tania Galloni, the Managing Attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, said about the executive order. “Getting there, though, will require a sustained commitment from this administration. Tackling water pollution and promoting clean energy will have to be part of DeSantis’s plan if he is to be successful. “
Frank Jackalone, Director of the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter, praised the wide sweep of DeSantis’s order, but said some key concepts critical to fixing Florida’s well-known environmental problems are missing.
“In his first week in office, Governor DeSantis has done more to address Florida’s water quality crisis than Governor Rick Scott did in eight years,” Jackalone said, adding that the order has “no mention of the need to work with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to address agricultural pollution” and “There is no mention of the need to combat climate change which is making Florida’s waters warmer and intensifying harmful algae blooms.”
Sierra Club also has concerns about the giant inland reservoir that Republicans have been pushing as a way to keep Lake Okeechobee’s pollution away from pricey communities along the coasts. Questions have been raised about whether the project will just shift the pollution problem from one place to another on the taxpayers’ dime. It was first imagined as a place to clean and filter water, but the design has devolved over the years, and some say it is now looking more like a water-supply pond to irrigate agriculture during droughts. In his order, DeSantis asks state agencies to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the reservoir.
“We oppose immediate work on the poorly designed Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir,” Jackalone said. “It first needs to be redesigned to include a shallower, wider reservoir with a major land purchase to provide for the necessary treatment of water from the reservoir before it is released south to the Everglades.”