State Republicans, DeSantis split on water issues
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
GateHouse Capital Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis used his opening week in office to underscore a campaign pledge to tackle Florida’s deepening environmental problems, with the former Navy lawyer saying he wanted the state on a “war footing.”
But signs are emerging that fellow Republicans in the state Legislature may be considering a more narrow approach — one some critics dismiss as a mere skirmish against the enemies of red tide and toxic algae that fouled both coasts.
“The public wants us to take on the entire problem, and that’s what we should be doing,” said Rep. Thad Altman, R-Merritt Island, whose Brevard County district was plagued by “brown tide” last spring and summer, an algae bloom which caused massive fish kills.
“Blaming one thing for these problems and saying that’s all we have to do is wrong. It’s a diversion,” he added.
The day after DeSantis was sworn-in as governor, a state Senate panel heard a presentation from Florida Atlantic University research scientist Brian Lapointe, who attributes much of the state’s water woes to the 2.6 million septic tanks in use.
Lapointe’s research, backed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, downplays the impact of nutrient runoff from agriculture — particularly the sugar industry near Lake Okeechobee — as a source of water pollution.
Like the sugar industry, Lapointe also isn’t a fan of state efforts underway to build a reservoir south of the lake to ease algae problems stemming from flood-control discharges into nearby waterways.
He told senators that was a “distraction.”
Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, a citrus grower, endorsed Lapointe’s focus and praised Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, for bringing it before the budget panel on Agriculture, Environment and General Government, which she chairs.
“I appreciate you standing up for what is right and what data actually matters,” Albritton told Mayfield.
The exchange, coming shortly before DeSantis signed an executive order outlining a broader attack on Florida’s water troubles, foreshadows a tension between the new governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has long allied with the state’s powerful agriculture industry.
The industry is certain to resist any calls for toughening state oversight of its fertilizer use and nutrient runoff into nearby waterways and underground springs.
DeSantis, though, said agriculture shouldn’t expect a free pass.
“I think that you have a lot of nutrients put into Lake Okeechobee that obviously, when the Army Corps is discharging that water that is aggravating some of the algae blooms, that are causing huge problems on both our coasts,” DeSantis said.
He said he was ready to make his case to lawmakers.
“These issues in Florida really don’t fall along partisan lines. How the Legislature has divided in the past is probably yesterday. I think now going forward, people realize — I can go to the most rock-ribbed Republican area in Southwest Florida and they tell you about the water,” he added.
DeSantis concluded, “I just think there’s such a huge majority of folks in Florida who support making sure we get this right that I think the legislators are going to listen.”
In his executive order, DeSantis said he wants to spend $2.4 billion over the next four years on Everglades restoration and water protections, establish a blue-green algae task force to focus on the issue and appoint a chief science officer to address current and emerging environmental problems, a departure from his predecessor, Gov. Rick Scott, who shunned interaction with scientists, particularly on the topic of climate change.
DeSantis also demanded the resignations of all eight members of the South Florida Water Management District board – one seat is currently vacant – which has been viewed as close with the sugar industry.
Board members angered the governor-elect in November by voting to extend a lease to sugar farmers for land the state needs for the reservoir Lapointe termed a “distraction” in his presentation to senators.
A DeSantis advisor, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, hinted at the overhaul when he told GateHouse Media on the day of the governor’s swearing-in, “There’s way too much sugar industry involvement in the South Florida Water Management District.”
While some senators may be willing to target septic tanks as the leading cause of Florida’s water problems, DeSantis appears willing to take a broader approach and as a three-term congressman, has had a contentious relationship with the sugar industry.
First-week action by the new governor shows he may be willing to take that combativeness to Tallahassee, where the industry is deeply rooted and represented by a flock of lobbyists, including Brian Ballard, who served as the governor’s own inaugural chairman.
“I think we need all hands on deck when it comes to our water problems,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “Yes, we need to address septic tanks, but we can’t ignore agriculture’s role in nutrients going into the water, or the lack of growth management, or the impact of climate change.
“We can’t take on one thing and say, there, we’ll call it a day,” she added.