When Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, stepped to the podium at the hurricane shuttered Coconut Jack’s in Bonita Springs on Jan. 10, he seemed to be living proof that history repeats itself, in this big-spending case for the good.
The reality may not be quite that simple.
Four years to the day earlier, as a newly elected Republican governor, he had issued the first executive order of his gubernatorial career, requiring the state to spend $2.5 billion for Everglades and water restoration in the next four years. That sum jumped to $3.3 billion with surpluses from federal pandemic relief monies.
This time around in the first executive order of his second term, he called for the state — the Department of Environmental Protection — to spend “$3.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and protection of our water resources, including water quality and water supply.”
Legislators in the Republican-dominated Senate and House have to agree to do it, and they will vote on the specifics to begin making that happen starting March 7, when they spend about eight weeks shaping the state’s annual budget during the 2023 legislative session. For that, the governor has proposed the highest in state history, almost $115 billion.
In the new executive order, Gov. DeSantis issued a series of imperatives, some clearer or more specific than others, based on four years of “incredible progress, entering into a golden era for conservation and protection of our treasured natural resources.”
He took credit for the progress and defined it with a dizzying welter of numbers presented by the DEP:
¦ $1.7 billion on Everglades restoration that included “more than 50 projects completed, broken ground or hit major milestones,” along with more water sent south to hydrate the Everglades and more than 8,500 pythons killed.
¦ $1.6 billion to improve water quality, with 130 projects in the Indian River Lagoon, $52 million spent on Biscayne Bay, 140 projects on springs and more than $200 million spent on alternative water supply, new technology and red tide cleanup.
¦ A 68% increase in water sampling, with 280 new monitoring stations focused on the Lake Okeechobee system.
¦ $1.1 billion spent on “resilience” to prepare for increased flooding and intense storm events in communities.
¦ $600 million to buy land, including 170,000 acres primarily part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
¦ More than $50 million to protect manatees and “provide habitat restoration.”
¦ “105 felony arrests and over 400 misdemeanors” with increased fines for sanitary sewer overflows as part of a greater enforcement effort.
His “golden era” came with an achievement he touted in the new executive order as one of the most significant: the passage of Senate Bill 712, “the most consequential environmental legislation in decades (with) a wide range of water quality protections.” He calls it the Clean Waterways Act.
Going forward, he ordered the DEP to spend more money funding not just septic to-sewer conversions and wastewater treatment projects but technologies that will reduce or stop pollution from stormwater runoff and farms.
He called for the DEP to work with local governments to create better comprehensive planning for sustainable growth, and he required that sewage treatment plants discharging treated wastewater into polluted or nutrient-laden creeks, rivers, canals, estuaries, bays or lagoons that are now part of longtime plans to restore them — plans that haven’t worked — be upgraded to “advanced wastewater treatment” by 2033.
He also ordered that those plans themselves, called Basin Action Management Plans, be improved, and that all agricultural operations — farms and ranches — be enlisted in the state program called Best Management Practices or BMPs, to reduce agricultural pollution.
DEP Secretary Shawn Hamilton broke this down last week to include some specific numbers: $406 million to build resilience in communities; $100 million for water quality in the Indian River Lagoon; $100 million for land conservation through the Florida Forever program; $610 million for Everglades restoration; $370 million for targeted water quality improvements; $50 million for springs restoration; $50 million for alternative water supply; $60.8 million to resist harmful algal blooms and red tide; $156 million for beach restoration; $145 million for prized properties; and $194.5 million for cleanup programs.
Behind the numbers
It sounds like a lot of well-funded fun.
But in the near month since the governor signed executive order 23-06, a number of water and environmental advocates, with climate scientists, have characterized the last four years as anything but golden, and suggested the governor talks more than he acts, and fun won’t be part of the picture.
“I am grateful for the work on the Everglades.
“Of all the dozens of projects we worked on in the 1970s and ’80s, this one is moving forward,” says Pam McVety, a Tallahassee based climate scientist who worked three decades for the Department of Environmental Protection and its antecedent agency, beginning under then governor, and later U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. With her staff, she wrote the original Everglades restoration action plan “to restore the Everglades, the River of Grass.
“Now you can imagine what I’m thinking when I look at the (current plan), and there’s a whole lot of drinking water supply in there, with cleaning up after agriculture — and there’s not a lot going on to keep growth on the east and west from moving straight into the original Everglades.”
More problematic than growth, in which Florida ranks at the top of the 50 states — and much more dangerous in her mind — is the seed of a disaster never mentioned in the executive orders by name: climate change. Instead, the governor’s orders stipulate that billions be spent on consequences, rather than causes, she concludes.
“The governor, wherever he is in the next couple of years — either in Florida or moving to Washington, D.C. — needs to look at addressing not just resilience, but cutting carbon emissions to use 100% renewable energy as fast as humanly possible.”
Carbon emission is the most potent igniter of climate change, and Florida is No. 1 on the U.S. target map for its effects as the century unfolds, climate scientists say.
“The physics is not waiting for the governor to figure out that climate change will one, destroy the Everglades, and two, destroy Florida’s economy. The physics doesn’t care. It will proceed, and we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades founded in 1969 by Marjory Stoneman Douglas and based in Stuart, suggests that promised money and actual progress are two significantly different things.
“The money, the funding, is what a lot of politicians like to talk about, but the success or failure of plans, and where that money is spent — and whether we are actively implementing solutions or (merely talking about them) — that part of the equation has really not been solved in Florida,” she says.
When the governor issued his first executive order in 2019, the southeast and southwest coasts had just been savaged, along with their economies, by red tide and blue-green algae, the cyanobacteria dangerous both to marine environments and to humans.
“So in the first executive order, the governor created the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which includes very smart academics,” Ms. Samples said. “He chose the right people. They came up with a series of recommendations in late 2019, but those recommendations haven’t been implemented, most of them.”
Instead, as part of his new order, Gov. DeSantis included language some view as dismissive or meaningless: “Directing the Blue-Green Algae Task Force to continue examining the sources of and solutions for addressing the mitigating blue-green algae and to provide additional recommendations for further state action.”
Last summer, with blue-green algae again assaulting water around the state, a group of non-profit water advocates including Friends of the Everglades, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Sierra Club, Florida Waterkeepers, Vote Water, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and others, assessed state progress three years after the task force issued its recommendations.
In a progress report they concluded that “ecological conditions in Florida have not improved and, in many cases, they have worsened. Lack of meaningful water quality protections have resulted in persistent harmful algal blooms, a record number of manatee deaths, and an overall decline in water quality statewide.”
Of 31 recommendations made by the task force, the state had acted on four, three years later.
Task Force recommendations included seven dealing with Basin Action Management Plans (none acted on); seven dealing with agriculture and Best Management Practices (two acted on); five dealing with on-site sewage treatment of human waste and three more with sanitary sewer overflows of human waste (none acted on); two dealing with stormwater treatment systems (neither acted on); four dealing with innovative technologies and applications (two acted on); and three dealing with blue-green algae blooms and public health (none acted on).
To see the report and the specific details of each recommendation, go here: www.everglades.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/FINAL-BGATF-Recs-Implementation-update-progress-report_final-draft.pdf
One of the larger disappointments for Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, who retired last month after a six-year tour advocating to protect water and people in the Caloosahatchee basin from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf, is the simple failure of the state to monitor water quality for fecal contamination, among others threatening human health.
“If you go down through much of the water quality elements of Senate Bill 712, the Clean Waterways Act, a number of them end with no definitive allocation amount,” he notes.
“At least one has no money at all in the bill: Real time water-quality monitoring. The question that begs is, how much did the legislature discount the provisions of SB 712 in the context of funding?
“So my opinion is: We’re going backwards because pollution resulting from landscape changing and growth is outpacing anything we’re doing to fix water. A lot of money is going to Everglades restoration, in both state and federal monies, but what about the rest of Florida, not just the Everglades?”
Bipartisan, all in
Since 2018, one of the prominent characteristics of the fight to protect and even restore waters and the environment in Florida has been its bipartisan nature, with Republicans and Democrats sometimes stepping into the fray together.
“More than any other issue, this is something that’s not a red or blue issue,” says Rep. Lindsay Cross, a Democrat from the 60th district in St. Petersburg. “It affects all of us, and I’ve seen many lawmakers embrace this as the quality of life, economic issue that it is.”
Rep. Cross, who spent two decades as a nonprofit organization advocate for cleaner water in the Tampa Bay estuary before entering politics, has proposed a new bill that would require the state to tighten Basin Action Management Plans, to more aggressively identify polluters of impaired waters, and to adopt some of the recommendations of the Blue- Green Algae Task Force.
Prominent among them, she says, is to “move forward on the septic inspection program. We have 2.7 million septic systems in the state, both rural and urban. And in South Florida where rising sea levels and high tides are problematic for septic tanks, we don’t have a comprehensive inspection plan.”
It won’t be cheap. “There was an assessment by the Florida Office of Demographic Research in 2021 estimating that it would cost over $6.1 billion for all septic systems to upgrade,” she said.
“But with the influx of population we’re seeing, every dollar we invest now is money well spent. Because it’s far more expensive to clean up or restore what we’ve destroyed,” than to protect it in the first place.”
That may be the lesson, and it’s a lesson of sorts Dean Saunders advocates in promoting a so-called green infrastructure in Florida where Gov. DeSantis has designated a total of $600 million so far for the purchase of conservation lands or the development rights to farms and ranches that continue their agricultural operations.
Mr. Saunders, an eighth generation Floridian who earned an agricultural degree from the University of Florida before going to work for then-Senator and later Gov. Lawton Chiles, is also a former state representative from Lakeland. As founder of a Florida-Georgia land brokerage firm known as Saunders, Ralston, Dantzler, he describes himself as “the father of Florida’s conservation easement program,” which he helped create as a legislator.
He gives the governor high marks for his role and advocacy of land conservation, concluding that “Florida has really been a leader in conservation. We’ve gotten it right. We face development pressure. Voters said we think it’s important to create a green infrastructure, by buying land or protecting land from development.”
The governor added $300 million to an initial outlay of that amount starting four years ago, money that became available starting Jan. 1.
They call it, “The Rural and Family Land Program,” Mr. Saunders says. “It’s administered by the Commissioner of Agriculture, and the governor and cabinet have to approve all land transactions.”
What it comes down to
In an even-handed look at Executive Order 23-06, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Vote Water (www.votewater.org), broke down the governor’s new marching orders into three categories they call “the good, the unclear, and the political.”
“We don’t wish to diminish the good that will come of Executive Order 23-06; any honest assessment has to conclude that the money alone, if spent wisely, will help.”
The good could include not only momentum generated by big money wisely spent, but specifics, such as $100 million designated for the Indian River Lagoon Protection Program that will include better monitoring, septic-to-sewer conversion programs and improved wastewater facilities.
Others in the “good” category are enhanced Basin Action Management Programs and Best Management Practices that could help stop agricultural pollution from what they describe as “non-point sources.”
What’s unclear in the executive order is what happens when polluters are identified, since “it’s not enough for the state to have the relevant data; it has to act,” Vote Water says. Also unclear: how big a role the state will play in helping local governments to manage growth, something it once did as a matter of course before then Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, dismantled the department that did that.
Vote Water describes the merely political in the governor’s executive order as his response to the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, and his order to the South Florida Water Management District essentially to do what it already does: “to expedite Everglades restoration projects.”
The conclusion is sobering, rather than golden: “Since DeSantis came into office we’ve also seen the biggest manatee die-off in history. We’ve seen horrific red tide blooms ravage the west coast; we’ve watched seagrass die off in key waterways like the Indian River Lagoon. We saw the Piney Point disaster dump a year’s worth of nutrients into Tampa Bay in just 10 days. We’ve seen blue-green algal blooms become an annual event on Lake Okeechobee; we’ve seen a rise in public health advisories posted due to contamination by fecal bacteria.
“Defenders might say, legitimately, that Florida’s long-simmering water crisis can’t be blamed solely on DeSantis. That’s fair.
“But if this is a ‘golden era’ — we don’t want to know what silver looks like.” ¦
Why is it that from the beginning of the article to the end, I sensed a thick cloud of partisanship? Is it just me?
Once again Roger Williams brings factual information and sober analysis to the politics of water in our state. Thank you for quality investigative journalism.
Thank you for another valuable, informative and educational report. I have learned so much from The Weekly. You are the only news source that presents Florida news in this much detail. Please maintain this quality of reporting. Thank you.