At the South Florida Water Management District, the theme song for this year might be “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.”
Out went the anti-environment board members whom former Gov. Rick Scott appointed. In came the appointees of Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose promises to protect the environment might have shifted enough votes for him to beat Andrew Gillum.
Out went former Executive Director Ernie Marks, whom the Scott appointees had hired. In came Drew Bartlett from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He vowed, “Nothing is going to get in the way” of Everglades restoration.
The Florida Wildlife Federation had sued the district after the previous board – with almost no public notice – extended a lease that allows Florida Crystals to keep farming land that will become a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir will reduce or eliminate the many harmful discharges to the east and west.
Environmental groups worried that the lease could delay the reservoir for eight years. Under new management, the district secured assurances from Florida Crystals that the company would make the land available when needed.
That commitment prompted the federation to drop the lawsuit. A representative confirmed Tuesday that the federation will rely on “the new board.”
The previous board and director also had embarked on a bad plan to store excess lake water underground. Sugar growers, some of Scott’s biggest patrons, had pitched the idea. They opposed the southern reservoir because it might require land from farmers.
But in addition to providing a new outlet for lake water, the reservoir will feed the Everglades when the “River of Grass” gets too dry. Storing the water underground would keep it from helping the Everglades.
Under Bartlett and Board Chairman Chauncey Goss, the district has abandoned that plan. In an interview, Goss said the roughly $10 million that had been budgeted will be used on real needs.
One day after Bartlett started, the management shakeup started. Gone were the lawyer who had supervised the controversial lease and the director of Everglades policy. Another casualty was the communications director on whose watch the district waged online campaigns against critics and aligned itself with the sugar industry.
In contrast, Goss has pledged to make South Florida’s most important public agency “transparent and accountable.” In an April email, the district sought public comment on determining “strategic priorities.” Last month, the district announced that it is 18 months ahead of schedule on the southern reservoir.
Other Republicans are noticing that environmental protection resonates with voters. In March 2017, Sen. Marco Rubio said buying land for that southern reservoir could turn communities around Lake Okeechobee into “ghost towns.” Last December, Rubio joined U.S. Rep. Brian Mast – whose Treasure Coast district suffers regularly from lake discharges to the east – in asking the Army Corps of Engineers not to delay the reservoir.
Another sign of the new attitude could come soon. During his first year, Scott ordered huge, indiscriminate budget cuts at the district. Each year, he told board members to cut taxes, despite warnings that the agency didn’t have enough money for flood control.
Goss wouldn’t commit to a tax increase for next year. For now, he’s “leaning on staff” for guidance. “My concern is the long-term operations and maintenance. We need to keep the pumps running to deal with sea level rise.”
That last comment represents another break from the Scott administration, which forbid agencies even from mentioning climate change and global warming. Rising seas threaten coastal communities. They increase the danger from high-tide storm surges. They can allow salt water to penetrate and destroy public water wells.
So last month, the district board heard a presentation on what it will take to make the southern third of Florida more resilient. The cost could be $1 billion over 10 years, spread across the district’s 16 counties.
“It’s a bit of a sea change,” Goss understated, referring to the changes at the district. The previous board had no member whose background included environmental advocacy. It’s the opposite now.
Scott considered the economy his priority. Climate change denial, however, places Florida’s economy at risk. Though we are barely a few months into this new era at the water management district, there’s reason to celebrate.