SARASOTA — Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’s not playing games with Florida’s most precious gem.
Less than 48 hours after his inauguration, DeSantis signed an executive order giving $1 billion more in funding for solutions to fight red tide and algae blooms plaguing Florida waterways and diminishing the quality of life for residents and business owners.
“Protecting water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing our state,” DeSantis said, Thursday at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota. He said he’s immediately keeping his campaign promise to work with both political parties, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Mote Marine Lab, to battle the algal blooms, monitor discharges from Lake Okeechobee and enhance red tide research.
“Democrats said they’ve spoken more to me than they have others in four years. We have to listen and do what’s right and not let foot-draggers get in the way of solutions.”
DeSantis instructed the South Florida Water Management District to begin the next phase of the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project design. He wants to make sure the Army Corps of Engineers approves the 17,000-acre reservoir project instead of enduring years of government tape.
DeSantis also ordered the Florida tourism boards to work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to use $2.5 billion over four years to help restore the Everglades and protect water resources. Of that money, Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota will be asking for $3 million a year for five years.
The money would go for increasing Mote’s local efforts to clean and filter waterways, do test pilot programs in red tide infested waters, bolster red tide research and develop more technology in the fight against red tide, according to Mote President Dr. Michael P. Crosby.
Crosby said he’s listened to the local business community to help with solutions.
“Red tide impacts our economy and lessens our quality of life,” he said. “We can decrease the number of toxins which cause upper respiratory issues to residents and drive away tourism.”
Crosby said the additional money will go toward studying and testing Florida red tide mitigation and control technologies for coastal communities affected by the harmful algal blooms.
“We are not yet guaranteed we will get the funding, but we are very hopeful,” he said. “The governor has only been in office for two days and came here to make his announcement. It’s very promising for us.”
State Sen. Joe Gruters, who represents Sarasota and Charlotte counties, said Thursday he wants to crack down on utilities that dump raw sewage into waterways.
“If a utility is caught dumping 900,000 gallons of raw sewage into the bay, they should have to pay one dollar for every gallon making a fine (of) $900,000,” he said. “We all play a part of keeping Florida waters clean. It’s unfair to our next generation.”
Gruters said he’s working on a matching grant program that municipalities could use to help customers hook into sewer systems and abandon septic tank usage.
“I want to make it so the customer can pay back the city or county utility over 20 years,” he said. “I know many people don’t have $10,000 or more to switch over to public utilities, but if we make it affordable, give municipalities incentives and matching grant opportunities and use common sense, it can be done.”
In the executive order called “Achieving More Now for Florida’s Environment,” a new blue-green algae task force is mentioned. The group will study causes and impacts of red tide on the environment and health.
The order established a new Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency. It will be in charge of research and analysis to keep agencies aware of the state’s environmental priority list. There will be a new chief science officer tasked with coordinating and prioritizing scientific research, data, and monitoring the environmental priority list.
DeSantis said he wants to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the upcoming Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project to insure it’s done correctly. The Army Corps must approve the project. He wants it done on a newly established timeline, not one that will take 10 years.
“I’ve lived in Florida for 41 years,” he said. “Last summer was the worst I’ve ever seen red tide. We have lots to do as a state. We need to take this as a challenge and tackle it. We need to treat it like a natural disaster the same way we do a hurricane and reconsider how we view red tide.
“I believe the governor coming here and pledging to work with our local business community and scientists on a problem is a great first step. We have many more to go. The extra one billion is more than has been given in the past four years. It should really help.”
At least one environmental group agreed. Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, called the measures a bold first move, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Even before he was confirmed as governor in November, DeSantis began rattling cages when the head of his environmental transition team, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, demanded that the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District resign, the TBT reported.
The board oversees Everglades restoration for the state and water management in some of its most troubled areas. Two days after the election, board members angered the then incoming governor when they agreed to extend a lease to sugar farmers on land slated for the reservoir. DeSantis stopped short of demanding resignations, but earlier this month one board member quit with more than three years left in her term. DeSantis issued his own request Thursday that the water managers resign.
Outside the press conference Thursday, Sarasota sculpture artist David Skaggs, owner of Dave’s Art World, hoped to grab the governor’s attention with his “Red Tide Raptor” piece he created from dead fish and sea creatures during the summer red tide outbreak.
“It’s an eight-month creation,” he said. “It’s made of dead fish, horse shoe crabs, a dolphin spine and other sea life that died due to red tide. We live in paradise and it’s no fun here when it smells like death.”