Deputy takes the helm of South Florida Water Management District

Thunderstorms roll across the Everglades at dawn near Sweet Bay Pond.
Thunderstorms roll across the Everglades at dawn near Sweet Bay Pond. HERALD/STAFF

The South Florida Water Management District chose its deputy director as the agency’s new chief, replacing a combative insider close to the governor with a career environmental regulator who has spent more than a decade working on Everglades restoration.

Ernie Marks, who joined the district in March 2016, becomes the third director in three years.

Marks served as the South Florida regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for two years and before that oversaw ecosystem projects for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a decade. He has a degree in environmental economics and natural resource management from the University of Rhode Island.

ernie marks
Ernie Marks was named the new executive director of the South Florida Water Management District Monday. South Florida Water Management District

Marks was the only person nominated for the position during the board’s 31-minute meeting, largely spent praising the work of outgoing director, Pete Antonacci, the former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott who earlier this month was named new chief of Enterprise Florida.

“Pete was the right guy at the right time,” said board chairman Dan O’Keefe. “My advice to Enterprise Florida: Brace yourselves and fasten your seat belts.”

During his two years at the helm, Antonacci repeatedly took on federal regulators and environmental groups. He accused the Everglades Foundation of cooking numbers on a study that looked at the need for a southern reservoir and threatened to end a longstanding partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, incurring the wrath of longtime Everglades advocate Nathaniel Reed. Earlier this month, he ordered district scientists not to participate in the National Academies of Sciences’ annual review of Everglades Restoration in West Palm Beach this week.

Antonacci, who was raised in Hialeah, came to the district after its former director irked Scott by failing to lower district taxes, defying a longstanding order. Antonacci was the only district chief without a background in science, but quickly got to work trying to speed up sluggish restoration efforts. After a regional drought triggered a massive seagrass die-off in Florida Bay, he helped push through a plan to deliver more water to the parched region.

Environmentalists, who have worked alongside Marks for years, praised his appointment.

“He is a person of integrity with a commitment to Florida’s environment and conservation,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in text.

“We’ve always thought it was important to have a director who knows the science,” said National Parks Conservation Association Everglades policy director Cara Capp said. “We know that Ernie Marks knows the Everglades. He cares about the Everglades. He cares about Florida.”

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