By Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
Gov. Ron DeSantis can cement his claim of being a pro-environmental governor by taking quick action on a bad piece of legislation. SB 2508 sailed through the legislative process but deserves the Governor’s veto.
It could have been a lot worse. Backed by Senate President and now Florida Agricultural Commissioner candidate Wilton Simpson, the bill initially contained language that would have weakened efforts to curb contaminated discharges from Lake Okeechobee and thwarted the development of a reservoir south of the lake, a key part of the restoration plan for the Everglades.
“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” the Governor said in February as the bill moved through the Florida Legislature. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the…reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee. Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.”
Strong words that prompted Simpson and his colleagues in the Florida Senate to amend the legislation but not enough to warrant Gov. DeSantis’ signature to make it a law. The bill still would make troubling changes to the way Florida protects its environment.
In its current form, SB 2508 imposes additional bureaucracy on the South Florida Water Management District’s water control plans, mandates fixed and outdated water shortage rules, and undermines recognized land conservation initiatives, like Florida Forever, the state’s land acquisition program, and the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which acquires easements on farms and ranches to thwart development.
The bill would also make the permitting process easier for utilities to use wetlands for other purposes, to the point that many environmentalists fear it would destroy wetlands. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection already has a backlog of permit applications. This change won’t help the department or its permitting process, much less the wetlands and other open spaces the agency is supposed to protect.
Throw in the negative impact the legislation would have on the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, a contentious process that managed to bring together — for the most part — disparate stakeholders that depend on a long-range plan to apportion precious lake water, and you have a problematic bill that shouldn’t become law.
This is not an easy position for us to take. The city of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County have come out in support of the bill, as it ensures higher water levels in Lake Okeechobee, which remains the area’s primary source of drinking water. In case of drought, higher lake levels ease access to drinking water. We get that.
But we and local government officials also know that relying on the lake’s surface water is increasingly difficult, thanks to algae contamination and other water quality problems that plague Lake Okeechobee. Better drinking water for a growing community like West Palm Beach demands long-term alternatives, like advanced treatment options, new groundwater sources and seawater desalination.
In the meantime, the state of Florida deserves better than this bill provides. Wetlands are vital to Florida’s ecology and economy. As natural habitats, the state’s bogs, marshes and swamps support a variety of fish and many endangered and threatened species. Wetlands also help buffer powerful storms filter sediment from what becomes drinking water.
Regrettably, our state, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, leads the nation in wetland destruction and loss — more than 10 million acres since settlers began diking and draining wetlands in the 19th Century. There is no need for legislation that will only continue and perhaps accelerate this devastating trend.
Signing SB 2508 into law will not only undermine any claims by Gov. DeSantis to be “green” but will also hurt pristine areas that attract visitors and new residents and fuel the state economy.
Florida can do more to strengthen environmental protections. The bill now before the Governor falls far short.
This editorial comes from The Palm Beach Post, which is part of the Invading Sea collaborative of Florida editorial boards focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.