STUART — Gov. Ron DeSantis spent a whirlwind third day in office, announcing a suite of pricey fixes for Florida’s embattled waterways and shocking the state’s largest water management district with a request that all of its board members resign immediately.
The nine-member volunteer board of the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees billions of dollars in Everglades restoration in 16 counties from Orlando through the Keys, was meeting in West Palm Beach on Thursday unaware of DeSantis’ planned announcements or intended request.
Board members ran afoul of the newly minted governor and his environmental transition team chairman U.S. House Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, in November when they approved extending a lease that allowed sugarcane farming to temporarily continue on land slated for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee while planning for the $1.4 billion project is underway.
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DeSantis unveiled an executive order Thursday morning during stops in Bonita Springs and Sarasota that includes $2.5 billion during the next four years for Everglades restoration and the creation of a blue-green algae task force. He later flew to Stuart to publicly request the resignations. The St. Lucie River in Stuart has suffered repeated bouts of blue-green algae outbreaks.
“We want to make sure we have everyone rowing the same way and one of the recommendations Rep. Mast provided to me was that we really needed to have a fresh start at the water management district,” DeSantis said. “We need to move forward together as Floridians united.”
Brandon Tucker, a water district board member and chairman of its Water Resources Analysis Coalition, drove to Stuart from the West Palm Beach meeting thinking the governor was going to announce his appointment to replace former board member Melanie Peterson, who resigned Jan. 1 with three years left on her term.
Instead, he learned he was being asked to resign, a request he doesn’t intend to fulfill.
“I will respectfully as possible decline,” Tucker said. “I want to serve out my term. I’ve never had a chance to speak with the governor or his staff and I know none of the people at our district had a chance to talk with him.”
Eight-year board member Jim Moran, who will leave his post when his term expires in March, said he doesn’t intend on an early exit either.
“We don’t serve at the pleasure of the governor,” Moran said. “If he thinks we serve at his pleasure, he is misinformed.”
All current board members were appointed by former governor Rick Scott, who was sworn in as Florida’s junior Senator this week.
DeSantis had five seats to appoint even before Thursday’s request, with Peterson resigning, three terms expiring in March and Carlos Diaz not yet confirmed.
“For far too long the South Florida Water Management District has been more accountable to special interests than to the people of Florida,” Mast said in a statement. “That changes today, and I look forward to continuing to work with Governor DeSantis to find replacements who make our waterways and environment the number one priority.”
$1.4 billion reservoir is heart of controversy
DeSantis’ campaign was backed by the Everglades Trust, which wants more farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee to be used as water storage and pollutant-removal ponds to increase water flow to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
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That doesn’t sit well with some Glades-area residents, who fear job loss if too much agricultural land is taken.
On Wednesday, the City of Belle Glade took out a $1,000 advertisement in The Palm Beach Post that was a reprint of a November letter thanking former Senate President Joe Negron for protecting “employment in the local agricultural industry” in the bill that created the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
The $1.4 billion reservoir is supposed to relieve lake discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that seed and exacerbate harmful blue-green algae blooms. The law required the district to allow farming to continue on the reservoir land until construction was ready to begin.
But environmentalist groups took issue with the way the sugar lease was handled when it was placed on an agenda late at night before a meeting in Coral Gables the day after the November election. Mast asked the board to delay the vote until the lease could be reviewed, but the board approved it.
Tucker said Thursday the voicemail he got from Mast before the vote was that the representative didn't want anything approved that would delay reservoir construction.
"Extending the lease does not make this project go out any longer in any way shape or form," Tucker said.
DeSantis said Thursday the reservoir was a priority and included it in his executive order.
“The bottom line is it’s a new day and the public deserves a board that is looking out for them,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Trust.
Algae task force, Everglades restoration in play
Other items in the executive order are the creation of an office of Environmental Accountability, the appointment of a chief science officer for the state, and the $2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration — the highest level of funding for restoration in Florida’s history, according to DeSantis.
“He’s making bold changes and I’m optimistic about the blue-green algae task force and that it will provide an umbrella to tackle our sewage issues,” said Nyla Pipes, a member of the district’s Water Resources Analysis Coalition and executive director of the One Florida Foundation.
Celeste DePalma, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, called the sweeping announcements “very promising.”
“The issue has always been funding to put restoration projects in the ground ASAP,” she said. “Our environment is our currency, and it looks like the governor realizes that too.”
Before DeSantis asked him to resign, South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Chairman Federico Fernandez said he was “encouraged by the news that we received today.”
“There are some very aggressive efforts being taken by the governor that I’m very supportive of,” Fernandez said.
Not everyone was gushing, however.
Moran said creating new offices with what he considers repetitive positions is just “more layers of bureaucracy.”
“We aren’t asleep at the switch,” Moran said about the district. “You think you can get better board members? We’ll see what happens.”