DeSantis unveils spending plan for Everglades, names Alligator Ron to water board

Governor Ron DeSantis appoints Ron Bergeron to South Florida Water Management District

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the appointment of Broward's Ron Bergeron to the South Florida Water Management District governing board at a press conference in the Everglades.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the appointment of Broward's Ron Bergeron to the South Florida Water Management District governing board at a press conference in the Everglades.

Gov. Ron DeSantis held back-to-back bicoastal press conferences Tuesday to seal his commitment to fixing Florida’s environmental woes by unveiling a $625 million spending plan and appointing two popular Republican conservationists to the board overseeing the state’s largest, and most troubled, water management district.

The state’s new governor also signaled he’s not likely to play by old rules, saying he’s in talks with the president to order U.S. army engineers to change how they manage Lake Okeechobee, the source of much of the state’s water troubles.

“I don’t want this to take forever. I think there’s a sense of urgency here,” DeSantis said from a podium backing up to Everglades marshes west of Broward County Tuesday afternoon. He made clear he also hopes to drum up support as he faces off with a Legislature often stingy about environmental spending.

Earlier in the day he made a similar announcement at the Rookery Bay national preserve on the west coast, a watery sanctuary of mangroves and inlets along the northern stretch of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in Broward at Everglades Holiday Park to reveal an environmental spending plan, Jan. 29, 2019. Desantis is accompanied by his wife Casey and Everglades activist ‘Alligator’ Ron Bergeron. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

At both stops, DeSantis named replacements for seats on the South Florida Water Management District, the board that oversees Everglades restoration efforts and the lake. In Broward, he nominated “Alligator” Ron Bergeron, a colorful millionaire outdoorsman usually clad in camouflage, who drives a black and gold Hummer and first visited the Everglades with his grandfather 72 years ago. In September, he ushered DeSantis around marshes in his camouflaged airboat. Tuesday, he choked up as he talked about his love for the Glades.

In Southwest Florida, DeSantis appointed Chauncey Goss, a longtime Sanibel resident who sits on the boards of two conservation groups and is the son of former CIA director Porter Goss.

Following the announcements, district chair Federico Fernandez, one of three board members who had so far refused DeSantis’ order to resign, said in a text to the Herald that he was stepping down.

“It is clear that the governor wants a board completely comprised of his appointments for the purpose of carrying out his vision,” said Fernandez, a Miami attorney appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2016.

Fernandez said he “made every effort” to stay on the board to address all district needs and not just Everglades work, but didn’t want progress to stall so decided to resign following the board’s February meeting.

DeSantis tangled with board members days after his election when he asked them to hold off voting to extend a lease to sugar farmers. The lease covered land targeted for an Everglades reservoir, a 17,000-acre fix for algae flowing from the lake and fouling the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Board members approved the deal anyway, saying they were following rules laid out by lawmakers when they approved the reservoir. DeSantis then demanded they resign.

As part of his $625 million spending plan on water resources projects, DeSantis wants $360 million to go to Everglades projects. That includes hiking the amount for the reservoir to $107 million. He also wants to spend $150 million to improve water quality and $50 million to restore springs in Central Florida. The amount represents a quarter of the $2.5 billion he’s vowed to spend over the next four years — a $1 billion increase over past spending, he said.

“What we’re doing in the budget is historic. It will have a very big impact on the quality of life for Floridians,” he said, promising to unveil more plans in the days ahead. “This is just one piece of that.”

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Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday he wanted to spend $40 million to finish raising part of the Tamiami Trail to allow more water to flow into Everglades National Park.

Earlier this month, DeSantis vowed to make the state’s algae-plagued waters a priority in a sweeping executive order that also created a chief science officer, an office to prepare for rising seas, and formed a task force to tackle the blue-green algae. DeSantis said Tuesday staff had already posted job announcements for the science officer and begun vetting applicants for the nine-member panel. The resiliency office, he added, will be part of his staff, allowing it to tackle issues in different government agencies.

DeSantis said he was making good on a campaign promise to address the state’s environmental problems after a devastating red tide slammed the Gulf Coast during the heated election. The tide coincided with toxic algae blooms flowing from the lake that fouled parts of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. The double whammy left Gulf beaches piled with dead marine life and choked canals with stinky chunks of algae that forced some to flee their homes and shutter businesses.

By persuading President Donald Trump to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep the lake about two feet lower for part of the year, DeSantis said he hoped to reduce polluted releases more quickly.

“That’s the easiest path to no discharges, to manage the lake lower in the dry season,” he said.

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Over the summer, algae blooms clogged a finger canal off the Caloosahatchee River in the River Oaks neighborhood near LaBelle. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

But the idea is sure to draw objections. The Corps now keeps the lake at about 12.5 feet during the dry season to reserve enough water to irrigate farms and send water to utilities. The levels were set in a regulation schedule created in 2008 after New Orleans levees collapsed during Hurricane Katrina to protect the lake’s aging dike. But when lake levels rise too high too fast, as they often do during the rainy season, water is flushed to the coast. The Corps has begun revising the schedule, which typically takes two to three years, and planned to have a new schedule in place when dike repairs are finished in 2022.

Corps spokeswoman Erica Skolte said the agency declined to comment Tuesday evening but would have more information on “the overall effort to update” the management plan Wednesday.

To pay for the projects, DeSantis said he plans to tap about $1.5 billion in budget surplus and not use money from a conservation trust created by a 2014 constitutional amendment, which is now at the center of a court battle. Over the summer, a Tallahassee judge ruled the money generated from real estate taxes — and expected to amount to between $740 million and nearly $1.4 billion a year for the next two decades — could only be used to buy and restore new land.

“Basically what we’ve said with Amendment 1 is let’s use it for conservation but I want to make sure the conservation is focused as much as possible on the water resources, to help with that because I think we just need to do it right now,” he said.

In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis toured Everglades marshes to get a better understanding of the restoration efforts. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

The budget debate is expected to kick off this year’s legislative session, which begins March 5.

After the announcement, Audubon Florida and the water management district issued statements praising DeSantis’ plans.

“His recommendation to allocate $625 million for state water resources projects like the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir, as well as the actions laid out in his recent executive order, show that Gov. DeSantis is leading the charge to restore and protect Florida families, businesses and the environment,” the district statement said.

Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.