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Carl Hiaasen

When it comes to saving Florida’s environment, DeSantis gets it — so far

 

Gov. Ron DeSantis got lots of attention when he focused on the environment for a handful of paragraphs during his inauguration speech last week.

The unusually optimistic reaction shows that Floridians who hope to preserve a few precious pieces of this remarkable place are starved for hope and desperate for leadership.

DeSantis began his green passage with an understatement: “Our economic potential will be jeopardized if we do not solve the problems afflicting our environment and water resources.”

In truth, Florida’s economy won’t merely be “jeopardized” if we don’t clean up our act; it will be strangled. Witness the crushing impact of the marathon red-tide outbreak and blue-green algae blooms upon businesses in coastal communities. That was a harrowing, nauseating, tourist-repelling glimpse of the future.

But, unlike his predecessor, DeSantis seems to grasp that it’s a serious long-term challenge, not a fleeting scientific anomaly-turned-political inconvenience. “The quality of our water and environmental surroundings are foundational to our prosperity as a state,” DeSantis said. “It doesn’t just drive tourism; it affects property values, anchors many local economies and is central to our quality of life. “The water is part and parcel of Florida ’s DNA,” he went on. “Protecting it is the smart thing to do; it’s also the right thing to do.”

Some wariness from the public would make sense, because this isn’t the first time we’ve heard such words from politicians who — in times of choking red tides or slime-covered rivers — become born-again environmentalists. The test, of course, is how hard (or if) the politicians back up their words after the campaign is over.

DeSantis is wasting no time. On Thursday, he issued a head-spinning executive order calling for a $2.5 billion hike in environmental funding, including increased water-quality monitoring, a purge of septic tanks, and — hang on — a ban on fracking. This is a Republican, folks, one who apparently has heard of Theodore Roosevelt.

Like former Gov. Rick Scott, DeSantis has received campaign contributions from some developers, industries and agricultural interests that are prolific polluters of Florida waterways. But the new governor’s supporters — including environmental groups such as the Everglades Trust and Bullsugar — like him because he spoke out strongly against Big Sugar, a major source of nutrient pollution in the Everglades.

DeSantis refused to accept any direct donations from cane growers and opposes government price supports for the industry. It was an unusually tough stance for anyone seeking statewide office in Florida, but don’t forget that Scott presented essentially the same anti-sugar message during his first run for governor. Then, after winning the race, Scott experienced either instant amnesia or a 180-degree epiphany. For the next eight years, you could have filled a dump truck with all the money his political action committees took hungrily from Big Sugar, and Big Sugar was well rewarded. Scott obediently endorsed the GOP Legislature’s awful rewrite of Florida ’s clean-water laws, effectively allowing major agricultural operations to police their own waste practices.

Is DeSantis sincere enough, or gutsy enough, to try to roll back an environmentally destructive law passed by his own party? What would have once been a rhetorical question doesn’t seem so pointless now.

Last week DeSantis ordered that environmental enforcement responsibilities be returned to the Department of Environmental Regulation, an agency that Scott had systemically disemboweled and underfunded. Last year the whole world got to see what happens when nobody’s paying enough attention to water quality — dead dolphins rotting on the beach and wheezing tourists bolting for the airports.

DeSantis wants to expedite construction of the Everglades reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to help filter fertilizer-laden runoff from farm fields, and he also promised to appoint a chief science officer.

That’s not a typo. The man actually used the word “science,” implying he might believe in it. That’s as shocking as it is encouraging, because DeSantis has never warmly embraced the extremely scientific concept of climate change. Environmental leaders were uncharacteristically starry-eyed after hearing about DeSantis’ order. One called it “amazing,” and another said it was “a little like Christmas morning.”

Another way the new governor would make a big splash: Invigorate the desiccated water-management districts by appointing sharp independent people to the boards, and by rehiring experts who got dumped or fled during the Scott administration.

The worst hack fest is the South Florida Water Management District, whose stealth re-leasing of state land to sugar giant Florida Crystals angered many people, including Rep. Brian Mast and DeSantis himself, who’d just been elected at the time. That tract of property was slated to be part of the planned Everglades reservoir. On Thursday, with Mast undoubtedly cheering to himself, DeSantis asked for the resignations of all SFWMD board members.

That got the right people’s attention. And while it’s naïve to think DeSantis will always put Florida ’s imperiled waterways ahead of corporate campaign donors, he has a personal investment in the cause that some officeholders don’t: DeSantis is a native Floridian with children young enough to marvel at the outdoors. He’s also deeply religious, and some evangelicals oppose trashing a place that they believe God created. DeSantis alluded to that notion in his inaugural speech.

And, sounding like a mix of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, he also said: “We will fight toxic blue-green algae, we will fight discharges from Lake Okeechobee, we fight red tide, we will fight for our fishermen, we will fight for our beaches, we will fight to restore our Everglades and we will never quit, we won’t be cowed and we won’t let the foot-draggers stand in the way.”

Go, Ronnie, go! As you say, it’s the right thing do. And, a year from now, pray we’re not reading those words back to you, as a bitter reminder of what you once promised.

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