By South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
Two bills that threaten the Everglades have not yet gone to Gov. Ron DeSantis. When they do, he should veto both.
The first is Senate Bill 2508. The version that the Legislature finally passed is better than the original, but it remains unneeded and potentially problematic.
To review, SB 2508 emerged halfway through the session. With good reason, we called it “the worst environmental bill in state history.”
The bill would essentially have forced the South Florida Water Management District, the lead state agency on Everglades restoration, to make Lake Okeechobee a private reservoir for farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The bill attempted to undercut new policies that take effect in January and treat the lake as the key regional environmental resource that it is. Farmers and their allies oppose those policies.
The original version would have amounted to political extortion. Unless the Legislature passed it, money for the new reservoir south of the lake would have been withheld. That added storage area for lake water will greatly reduce, and may eliminate, large releases to the east and west that damage coastal estuaries.
SB 2508′s Republican sponsors hoped to sneak the bill through the Legislature. Instead, environmental groups and tourism and marine businesses mobilized. The group Captains for Clean Water got 40,000 signatures on a petition opposing the bill.
The next Senate president, Kathleen Passidomo of Naples, represents Southwest Florida, which has suffered greatly from massive lake discharges. Passidomo helped to rewrite the bill and remove much of the potential damage, but better does not mean good.
Let’s go back to those new policies we mentioned. During droughts, the water management district can recommend to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who gets that limited amount of water. Rules governing the district’s decision-making are four decades old and are tilted in favor of agriculture.
SB 2508 in its current form would require that the district’s decisions be “ratified by the Legislature and presented to the governor.” This would further politicize water policy. Farm groups could lobby against a recommendation that agriculture get less water, even if the environment would benefit. There’s also confusion about whether the governor could veto something “presented.”
Everglades Foundation Executive Director Eric Eikenberg has called the rewritten SB 2508 a “Hail Mary” by farmers who failed to ram through the first version. The water management district board should have opposed the rewrite, but it took no position.
The other bill DeSantis should veto is a budget item related to wider Everglades policy.
For years, farmers have pushed the idea of storing massive amounts of water underground, north of Lake Okeechobee. They opposed the southern reservoir because it will take farmland out of production. More southern storage would do the same.
But the water management district tried underground storage two decades ago as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Those reservoirs underperformed. By most credible accounts, the technology won’t work, especially in South Florida.
Yet the proposed budget includes $350 million for those reservoirs. According to the budget language, the money would “achieve the greatest reductions in harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries” on the east and west coasts, respectively.
The reservoirs would not achieve that goal — but there’s another problem.
Sending water south doesn’t just reduce discharges east and west. It makes more water available to the Everglades, after it’s stored and pollutants are filtered out. The Everglades is now starved for water during parts of the year.
Broward County also benefits. That stored water replenishes wellfields that supply water to local governments. It protects those wellfields against saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels.
After SB 2508 passed, DeSantis said he had not read the latest version. He said, though, that the bill was in “a dramatically different posture” than it had been. Yet the bill still would allow faster permitting for developers seeking to destroy wetlands. The program to buy and preserve farmland might have to compete with the program to buy land for environmental preservation.
Sugar growers likely crafted SB 2508 when it became clear that the Corps of Engineers was going to approve those new rules for Lake Okeechobee. The change will reverse four decades of Florida letting growers dictate environmental policy.
Based on public comment, Floridians overwhelmingly oppose the legislation. According to the governor’s office, it has received roughly 4,000 emails against SB 2508 and none in support. The public is right.
We’ve disagreed with DeSantis on many issues, but on the Everglades, his record is strong. Vetoing these two bills would keep it that way.
This editorial was written by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.