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Two days after he took office, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled sweeping measures to clean up Florida’s troubled waters, including spending $2.5 billion and launching more aggressive policies to address algae choking Lake Okeechobee and polluting the state’s coasts.
The newly minted governor, who angered environmentalists on the campaign trail by dismissing climate change as a significant threat, also promised to establish a resiliency office to address impacts.
“The people of Florida wanted to see action and this was action that was requested regardless of your party,” DeSantis said in a morning briefing at a Florida Gulf Coast University field station in Bonita Springs, north of Naples. “This is something that can unite all Floridians.”
Included in an executive order: increase water monitoring around the state and establish a task force to address blue green algae, a growing threat worsened by pollution and a warming planet that now regularly fouls rivers flowing from a massive lake half the size of Rhode Island.
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DeSantis also promised to speed up construction of a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of the lake and try to end polluted discharges.
“I’d like to see no discharges,” he said. “We’re working with the White House and as difficult as it is, working with the Army Corps to mitigate that.”
The new governor also promised to appoint a chief science officer so “we’re doing sound science making sure we’re getting ahead of the curve on these issues.”
This past summer, algae blooms covered most of the 730-square mile lake and coincided with a red tide in the Gulf of Mexico that littered beaches with dead sea life, including endangered sea turtles, dolphins and manatees. As the crisis worsened, scientists complained that they’d been hampered by a lack of data after the state repeatedly cut water monitoring under Gov. Rick Scott, now the Florida’s junior senator. Scott also came under fire for repeatedly ordering budget cuts to water management districts and the Department of Environmental Protection.
On Thursday, DeSantis said his spending would surpass Scott’s by about a billion dollars.
“That’s showing Florida’s commitment to getting these issues right,” he said.
DeSantis also ordered enforcement of environmental regulations moved from the state’s wildlife agency to the DEP. Under Scott, environmental enforcement plummeted and dropped to its lowest in three decades last year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Even before he was confirmed as governor in November’s tight election, DeSantis began rattling cages when the head of his environmental transition team, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, demanded the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District resign. The board oversees Everglades restoration for the state and water management in some of its most troubled areas. Two days after the election, board members angered the incoming governor when they agreed to extend a lease to sugar farmers on land slated for the reservoir. DeSantis stopped short of demanding resignations, but earlier this month one board member quit with more than three years left in her term.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis hammered the powerful sugar industry for wielding too much influence in the state. While he remained vague about specific fixes, he firmly positioned himself as anti Big Sugar.
Thursday’s announcement was praised by environmental groups. Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, who accompanied DeSantis and DEP chief Noah Valenstein on a boat tour before the announcement, called the measures a bold first move by the incoming governor.