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New Florida water policies announced by DeSantis come with some major caveats

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced a slew of major water policy reforms in Florida on Thursday, making good on campaign promises to address mounting water crises in the coastal state, including a deeply controversial algae problem.

But the governor declined to acknowledge climate change in the new policies while doing so and environmental advocates in Florida are questioning whether the policy package goes far enough in its efforts to tackle the state’s problems.

On Thursday morning, DeSantis unveiled a dramatic water plan for the state. Both blue-green algae and “red tide” — the infamous algal blooms choking the state’s coastal beaches — were included in the announcement following a year of controversy over how to fight the toxic, economically devastating issue.

The Blue-Green Algae Task Force introduced in the plans will specifically focus on how to mitigate and address that form of algae, while the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been tasked with creating an Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection to address coastal algae and other related problems.

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Also included in the plan is $2.5 billion in funding devoted to addressing restoration in the Everglades, along with protection of the state’s water resources. An Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency will also be created in order to better integrate scientific research and analysis into the DEP’s environmental policies. The department will moreover have a Chief Science Officer “coordinate and prioritize scientific data.” The South Florida Water Management District, meanwhile, is tasked with quickly moving forward on an Everglades reservoir project.

“The protection of water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing our state,” said DeSantis. “That’s why today I’m taking immediate action to combat the threats which have devastated our local economies and threatened the health of our communities.”

The news marks a major shift in Florida, where officials have historically gone so far as to ban the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official documents and communications. Climate and environmental issues have traditionally been a back-burner issue in the Sunshine State, leaving advocates excited by this week’s turn of events. But questions still linger about the viability of the policies, to say nothing of how far they actually go.

A welcome shift

The morning announcement took some environmental advocates by surprise and several told ThinkProgress they were still assessing what the new policies might mean for the state. Still, some state advocates working on climate issues indicated that they were heartened by the news, which marks a departure from the weak environmental legacy of former Gov. Rick Scott (R), now a senator.

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In an email to ThinkProgress, Yoca Arditi-Rocha, executive director for the non-profit, non-partisan CLEO Institute, commended DeSantis’ efforts and sounded a hopeful note about bipartisanship on the climate challenges facing Florida.

“We have to close this partisan gap and Florida can lead the way,” she said. “We have seen more and more often, members from our congress from [both parties]… come together to propose climate action legislation that can protect all Floridians from the devastating effects we are already experiencing from our changing climate.”

Florida is undeniably vulnerable to global warming. The sunny state is suffering from worsening heat waves along with increasingly more deadly hurricanes, at the expense of its most vulnerable residents, including farmworkers and low-income communities of color in cities like Miami.

The Everglades Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to protecting and raising awareness about the national park, also applauded DeSantis’ announcement.

“This is the first governor who has demonstrated that key link between our environment, tourism and our tax base,” said CEO Eric Eikenberg. Florida’s economy leans heavily on tourism, not least of all in the Everglades, which is among the most endangered sites in the United States, threatened by sea-level rise and other byproducts of climate change.

Do the policies go far enough?

But some climate advocates laced their comments with caveats. Frank Jackalone, director of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, praised the governor’s focus on nutrient pollution (crucial to tackling the algae crisis) and moves to strengthen environmental oversight and incorporate science into state decision-making. But he also highlighted several points of concern.

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“He’s not talking about mitigating the causes of climate change. During his campaign, he wouldn’t say the words, he wouldn’t talk about climate change,” Jackalone said, noting that DeSantis’ new policies avoid referencing the words. “He’s hinted he’s not convinced people are causing climate change. This is a real problem.”

That concern may sound familiar to Floridians acquainted with DeSantis’ spotty environmental record. The governor notably holds a 2 percent lifetime approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) for environmental votes while in Congress, with that number standing at 3 percent in 2017.  Environmental groups have moreover consistently expressed discontentment with DeSantis’ tenure as a U.S. representative.

On the campaign trail in 2018, DeSantis frequently alternated between labeling himself an environmentalist and shying away from acknowledging the existence of climate change. That approach has persisted despite recent events such as Hurricane Michael, which made landfall with tornado-force winds last fall.

Questions about oil and gas

But DeSantis’ unwillingness to acknowledge climate change isn’t the only worry for Florida’s environmentalists. The governor’s announced plans for fracking also caught the eye of some skeptical advocates.

In his plans, DeSantis singled out hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a move meant to ban the practice in Florida. Fracking is notorious for its impact on the environment and human health; the oil and gas extraction technique allows for an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions, thereby exacerbating global warming in the process.

But in a press release, the Sierra Club expressed concern over DeSantis’ emphasis on banning “hydraulic fracturing” rather than acid matrix limestone fracturing, which the organization argues is a far more common practice seen in Florida. This nuance, some advocates fear, will allow for the other practice to continue while flying under the radar. 

Meanwhile, another source of worry is DeSantis’ caveated opposition to offshore drilling, which only targets activity off of Florida’s coasts. Under his new plan, state agencies are tasked with opposing any and all oil and gas activities off of every Florida coast — but environmentalists worry this isn’t clear enough.

“He says, ‘we are opposed to drilling off of Florida’s coast.’ Well, where does that begin? How far out from the coast would you allow drilling? One would argue that drilling anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico, anywhere in the Atlantic, threatens Florida’s coast,” said Jackalone.

Florida voted to constitutionally ban offshore drilling last November and it’s unclear how DeSantis’ new crackdown differs from that move. The state only controls its own waters up to three miles out, with the rest under federal control. And while the Trump administration has moved to open virtually all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, Florida was last year granted a controversial exemption by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Beyond environmentalists, DeSantis is also likely to face pushback on his plan from Florida Democrats. The state’s Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson questioned in a press release how the governor would pay for the sweeping package.

“Can our state budget handle this increase? Is the plan to cut into other programs to raise the needed funds?” she queried.

What comes next?

Water issues in Florida are likely to shape much of DeSantis’ first weeks in office regardless. In another surprise move on Thursday, DeSantis also reportedly asked the entire South Water Management District board to resign; the board is notably tasked with carrying out reservoir construction under the governor’s new policies.

That resignation request follows ongoing tension between the governor and the board over a leasing project to a sugar grower, highlighting an area DeSantis has vowed to crack down on. Some critics of the state’s sugar industry have alleged the sector’s runoff is connected to Florida’s algae problem.

The flurry of announced changes sets DeSantis up for a year that may see climate and environmental issues dominate in a state deeply vulnerable to climate change. Either way, climate advocates say they are closely watching to see what comes next from the governor.

“DeSantis has done more on this front to address Florida’s water crisis during his first week in office than Gov. Scott did in eight years,” said Jackalone. “But that’s not saying much.”

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