With a vengeance — and I do mean vengeance — the faux environmentalist in the governor’s mansion picked the perfect city in the perfect county as the perfect foil to show Floridians just what a tough dude they’ve elected when it comes to water quality.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, at the behest of Gov. Ron DeSantis, fined Fort Lauderdale an unprecedented $1.8 million after the city’s two-month-long cascade of sewer ruptures.
Something else unprecedented in the governor’s financial beat-down of Fort Lauderdale: In the past, other cities in a state beset with chronically failing wastewater systems have been allowed to apply fines toward repair costs.
Fort Lauderdale was extended no such leniency. The city has until March 31 to come up with the dough.
Indeed, Fort Lauderdale’s recent series of sewage calamities have been disgusting; no doubt exacerbated by decades of chintzy, tax-adverse city governance. But two years ago, Fort Lauderdale acknowledged its crisis with a “Go Big, Go Fast,” initiative to replace failing sewer mains with modern 30-inch pipes. In 2018, the city commission voted to borrow $200 million to finance more repairs. Utility rates were jacked up by 5 percent. Last month, the city outlined a 5-year, $600 million upgrade of the water and sewer system.
So, it’s not like the current cast of city leaders have ignored the problem. When raw sewage and a putrid miasma contaminate the town’s most prosperous neighborhoods — think Rio Vista during Christmas week — and furious residents besiege City Hall, the mayor and commissioners hardly need a prod from Tallahassee to remind them that they’re in the throes of calamity.
But DeSantis needed a sacrificial patsy, a place where he could demonstrate his newfound concern for Florida’s waterways. Fort Lauderdale was politically perfect: the seat of government in a county that gave 68 percent of its votes to his opponent in 2018. (The same county where the governor removed the sheriff and supervisor of elections to convey other tough-guy political messages.)
“Too many municipalities have failed to invest in needed upgrades to their water infrastructure in part because it is cheaper to violate the law and pay a nominal fine. This is unacceptable and needs to change,” DeSantis said.
True that. Failing wastewater systems across the state have contaminated Florida waterways with 3 billion gallons of sewage over the last decade. But only one city has been hit with a $1.8 million fine.
His decision reeks; less from sewer gas than hypocrisy. The governor and his Republican allies in Tallahassee are pleased to demonstrate environmental bona fides by fining the hell out of South Florida’s Democratic stronghold for failing to upgrade an antiquated wastewater system. However, there is scant mention around Tallahassee about curtailing farm runoff, which nurtures the toxic Day-Glo green toxic algae that has slimed the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee waterways.
But who in the Republican hierarchy wants to offend Big Ag?
Even worse for the waterways, Florida decided in 2012 to do away with mandatory inspections of the state’s 2.6 million notoriously leaky septic tanks. The pollutants leeching out of septic tanks are prime suspects in the fish kills that have choked the Banana River, Sykes Creek, the Indian River and the Mosquito Lagoon with fish carcasses and the stink of political expediency.
More disasters are looming. DeSantis approved the construction of 300 miles of new toll roads along Florida’s west coast, a sop to developers and road builders that will spawn urban sprawl and environmental degradation.
This is the governor who owes his oh-so-close election to the embrace of Donald Trump, who has undone (so far) 95 federal environmental regulations, including 10 crafted to protect America’s waterways.
Nor has our born-again environmental crusader had much to say about global warming or sea-level rise, though the encroaching sea water has exacerbated the sewer failures in Fort Lauderdale and other low-lying seaside communities. The same phenomenon that floods city streets on sunny days pushes corrosive saltwater into the coastal aquifer, both eating away at the sewers and destabilizes the soil that in previous decades had kept pipes from shifting.
Probably, sea-level changes are fast rendering septic tanks inoperable. But without inspections, who knows?
If DeSantis is so bent on punishing political entities who’ve sullied Florida’s environment, he ought to include his predecessor, Rick Scott, the governor who would not allow his minions to utter climate change” or “global warming.”
And, maybe, in recognition of his own administration’s environmental sins, fine himself a few million dollars.
Fred Grimm, a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale, has worked as a journalist in South Florida since 1976. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @grimm_fred
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.