En­cour­ag­ing news from Gov. DeSantis on clean wa­ter, Ever­glades and sea-level rise

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - Opinion -

Af­ter eight years of Gov. Rick Scott de­grad­ing sci­ence and dismissing cli­mate change, Gov. Ron DeSantis an­nounced Thurs­day he will ap­point a chief sci­ence of­fi­cer to deal with “cur­rent and emerg­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns most press­ing to Florid­i­ans.”

This wel­come turn­around came just two days af­ter DeSantis’ swear­ing-in, in an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that calls for $2.5 bil­lion in Ever­glades restora­tion and wa­ter re­source pro­tec­tions over the next four years, a $1 bil­lion in­crease over the past four years.

The or­der also in­structs the South Florida Wa­ter Man­age­ment District to im­me­di­ately start the next phase of the reser­voir project south of Lake Okee­chobee. The gover­nor added oomph to his di­rec­tive late Thurs­day by de­mand­ing the res­ig­na­tions of the district’s nine board mem­bers who, in a sur­prise move af­ter the elec­tion, gave sugar grow­ers an ex­tended lease on the pub­lic land meant for the reser­voir.

The gover­nor’s sweep­ing and re­fresh­ing or­der didn’t stop there. It also cre­ates a task force on blue-green toxic al­gae, or­ders the new sci­ence of­fi­cer to “co­or­di­nate and pri­or­i­tize sci­en­tific data, re­search, mon­i­tor­ing and anal­y­sis” on Florida’s en­vi­ron­ment, and cre­ates an Of­fice of En­vi­ron­men­tal Ac­count­abil­ity and Trans­parency charged with cor­ralling sci­en­tific re­search and data “to en­sure that all agency ac­tions are aligned with key en­vi­ron­men­tal pri­or­i­ties.”

This is whole new tone for a gover­nor’s of­fice that un­til now, has es­sen­tially told Florid­i­ans we couldn’t af­ford to both cre­ate jobs and pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.

For­mer Gov. Scott cut mil­lions of dol­lars from wa­ter man­age­ment district bud­gets, which meant shed­ding sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers and other ex­perts. He slashed more than 200 wa­ter-mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions. He sharply re­duced the polic­ing of pol­luters. And he rolled back growth-man­age­ment laws and elim­i­nated the state agency that over­saw them.

DeSantis’ en­light­ened or­der takes a gi­ant step in the other di­rec­tion.

In­deed, the or­der cre­ated some­thing not men­tioned in Thurs­day’s press re­lease. Far down the list of Ex­ec­u­tive Or­der 19-12 — in the 26th of 27 para­graphs — the gover­nor di­rects the state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion (DEP) to:

“Cre­ate the Of­fice of Resilience and Coastal Pro­tec­tion to help pre­pare Florida’s coastal com­mu­ni­ties and habi­tats for im­pacts from sea level rise by pro­vid­ing fund­ing, tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance and co­or­di­na­tion among state, re­gional and lo­cal en­ti­ties.”

That’s right. The ef­fects of “cli­mate change,” that taboo phrase in the Scott ad­min­is­tra­tion, gets its own of­fice in the DeSantis ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Make no mis­take: this is a huge ad­vance for the state of Florida as the ex­is­ten­tial threat of sea-level rise be­comes more and more ap­par­ent, no mat­ter your views on the un­der­ly­ing cause. Our col­lab­o­ra­tive ed­i­to­rial-page project, The In­vad­ing Sea, has been ar­gu­ing for months for state ac­tion to bolster lo­cal­i­ties or­ga­niz­ing to help their re­gions pre­pare for the higher wa­ters headed our way.

DeSantis did not talk about sea-level rise on the cam­paign trail, un­like his Demo­cratic op­po­nent An­drew Gil­lum. And when asked about cli­mate change, he ques­tioned whether it’s man-made, adding that, in any case, it’s a prob­lem be­yond the ca­pac­ity of state gov­ern­ment to tackle.

But the for­mer con­gress­man from north­east Florida has surely no­ticed the more se­ri­ous flood­ing that’s been oc­cur­ring in Jack­sonville, just as we in South Florida now see flood­ing on sunny days dur­ing au­tumn’s king tides.

By ap­point­ing a sci­ence of­fi­cer and cre­at­ing an of­fice to en­sure all agen­cies are on the same page on en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters, DeSantis has set the ex­pec­ta­tion that he will heed what sci­ence has to say – and not par­rot the dodge used by Scott and other cli­mate de­niers, “Don’t ask me, I’m not a sci­en­tist.”

What sci­en­tists are pre­dict­ing is that the sea will rise 2 feet, and maybe more, in the next 40 years. At 3 feet, bar­rier is­lands and low-ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties will be largely un­in­hab­it­able. DeSantis is 40, the youngest Florida gover­nor in a cen­tury. Our state will face enor­mous change — trau­matic change — within his life­time, and cer­tainly in the life­time of his two young chil­dren.

The new Of­fice of Resilience and Coastal Pro­tec­tion isn’t the only big news that DeSantis’ team seemed to bury on Thurs­day. The 27th and fi­nal para­graph of the ex­ec­u­tive or­der is for the DEP to “adamantly op­pose all off-shore oil and gas ac­tiv­i­ties off ev­ery coast in Florida and hy­draulic frac­tur­ing in Florida.”

This is an­other win for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who felt that the voter-ap­proved Amend­ment 9 didn’t go far enough to pro­tect the state’s shores from po­ten­tial oil spills. It also puts a lid on any fur­ther leg­isla­tive ef­forts to ex­pand frack­ing in the Ever­glades.

At his in­au­gu­ral, as he pledge to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment, DeSantis spoke in the wartime ca­dence of Win­ston Churchill. (“We will fight toxic blue-green al­gae, we will fight dis­charges from Lake Okee­chobee, we will fight red tide, we will fight for our fish­er­men, we will fight for our beaches…”) Af­ter years of de­nial, our state des­per­ately needs such courage to pre­pare for the in­evitabil­ity of sea-level rise.

Con­trary to what DeSantis said on the cam­paign trail, state gov­ern­ment can do quite a bit to di­min­ish cli­mate change and a loom­ing fu­ture of ever-more in­tense hur­ri­canes, flood­ing and coastal ero­sion. Un­der con­sci­en­tious lead­er­ship, the state could slash car­bon emis­sions and en­cour­age al­ter­nate en­ergy sources. The most im­por­tant swing state in pol­i­tics could wield enor­mous in­flu­ence on na­tional pol­icy.

In his first few days, DeSantis is off to a bold, strong start on the en­vi­ron­ment. On the topic of sea-level rise, the proof will be in the fol­low-through. But our new gover­nor has flipped a switch in Tal­la­has­see and we’re ex­cited to see the light.

“The In­vad­ing Sea” is a col­lab­o­ra­tion of four South Florida me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions — the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel, Mi­ami Her­ald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Pub­lic Me­dia.

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