February 6, 2019

SOUTH FLORIDA — “Things are absolutely flying,” says Florida Bay advocate Sandy Moret.

“People in Tallahassee are changing their minds,” said Moret, co-owner of Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada and a board member of the Bullsugar environmental group. “They’re starting to realize that without enough fresh water for the Everglades and Florida Bay, Florida will go down the tubes.”

In recent weeks, the nine-member board of the South Florida Water Management District has been completely overhauled after new Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a “clean reset.” The district is the lead state agency on Everglades restoration and its effect on Florida Bay.

District board resignations soon followed, including those from board chairman Federico Fernandez of Miami-Dade and vice chairman Brandon Tucker, who represented Monroe County as part of his six-county district.

Only two members of the prior board appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott were still in their seats seats as of Monday. Terms of remaining district commissioners, Sam Accursio of Miami-Dade County and James Moran of Palm Beach County, both expire in March.

“There is the proverbial snowball’s chance in South Florida either will be reappointed,” opined the editorial board of the Treasure Coast Newspapers chain (TCPalm.com) based in Port St. Lucie.

With a slate of vacancies, two Florida Keys residents have been recommended by local elected officials for DeSantis’ consideration: former Monroe County commissioner George Neugent of Marathon and Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association commodore Steve Friedman of Islamorada.

“Whether it’s me or somebody else, somebody from Monroe County needs to be on the district board,” Neugent said Monday.

Neugent has been endorsed by the Monroe County Commission, Islamorada Village Council and Marathon City Council.

“I’ve heard [the governor’s office] has been inquiring about what kind of guy I am as part of filtering the applications,” Neugent said.

In addition to multiple terms on the county commission, Neugent served as chairman of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and remains Monroe County’s representative on the Gulf Consortium, a 23-county panel working on coastal restoration caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Islamorada council members on Jan. 31 also submitted an endorsement for Friedman, an 18-year fishing guide with a master’s degree. A massive Florida Bay seagrass die-off in 2015 intensified his efforts for Everglades restoration.

“Steve has been very involved in water-quality issues,” Islamorada Vice Mayor Mike Forster said. “He’s taking care of his own [Florida Bay] back yard and taking care of us.”

As SFWMD board replacements, DeSantis recently tapped “Alligator Ron” Bergeron of Broward County, a developer and conservationist who served two terms as a board member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; and Chauncey Goss, a Sanibel budget and political analyst and board member of Captains for Clean Water and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.

The governor and his environmental adviser, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL 18), were outraged in November when the water management district board renewed a lease extension with a sugar company for a 16,158-acre tract that eventually will be the site of a future reservoir needed for Everglades restoration.

The district board said the lease allowed initial work on the reservoir to begin while plans are finalized. Critics contended the lease could slow reservoir construction.

DeSantis last week unveiled his environmental budget proposal that calls for more than $625 million for Everglades restoration and protection of water resources.

“By investing $625 million each year, more than $2.5 billion will be invested by the end of Gov. DeSantis’ first term,” his office said in a statement. “That would amount to $1 billion more than was invested to protect our water resources in the previous four years.”

The $360 million for Everglades restoration budget, including the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir that would store and treat fresh water that could be released to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

Also proposed are $150 million for water quality, $50 million for Central Florida’s springs, and $25 million for research into reducing the harmful algal blooms like red tide and the blue-green algae.

Moret noted that newly elected U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL 26, which includes the Keys) has been named to U.S. House committees which oversee aspects of Everglades management.

kwadlow@keysnews.com