January 9, 2019

SOUTH FLORIDA — Florida’s new governor promised a new focus on Everglades restoration before his Tuesday inauguration.

“We will put Everglades restoration into high gear and make it the reality that Floridians have been promised for three decades,” Ron DeSantis said in a Jan. 4 statement.

That would be welcome news for Florida Bay advocates who say increasing freshwater flow through the Everglades will help the bay move toward its historically brackish state. Excessive salinity in Florida Bay has been linked to massive seagrass die-offs that can trigger harmful algal blooms.

DeSantis “gets it,” Everglades Foundation chief executive Eric Eikenberg said Monday. “I’ve had opportunities to speak with the governor-elect and visit with him about getting a sufficient amount of water through the Everglades and into Florida Bay.”

The new governor “understands and sees the clear link between tourism, our fisheries and the desire to have clean water in the Keys and the state,” Eikenberg said.

DeSantis said his administration will be “prioritizing environmental issues like water quality and cleaning the environmental mess that has resulted in toxic blue-green algae and exacerbated red tide around the state.”

The new governor opposed a November vote by the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that oversees Everglades restoration, to lease 16,158 acres designated as the eventual site of a massive freshwater reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to a sugar company while planning is underway. The lease was scheduled to expire in March 2019.

The district said it reclaimed 560 acres that allow the agency to immediately begin stockpiling rocks and other materials needed for the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir and A-2 Stormwater Treatment Area, which the district says will take at least eight to 10 years to complete.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla. Dist. 18, named by DeSantis to head his environmental transition team, said this week that he will refile his South Florida Clean Coastal Waters Act in Congress “which will force the state and federal government to work together to fight the ongoing threat of algal blooms and protect the Everglades.”

“It’s ridiculous that a federal program specifically designed to combat algal blooms has never done an Everglades-specific analysis,” Mast wrote in a Facebook post.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel said in its Jan. 4 editorial that DeSantis could demonstrate his Everglades concern by replacing three water-management district board members whose terms expire in March. Additionally, a fourth board member said she plans to resign before her term ends in 2020.

“Given [Melanie] Peterson’s track record of denying science and voting against Florida’s environment, this is good news,” Mast told the newspaper.

In late December, the water-management district issued a statement on the start of “aerial surveying and taking soil samples of the Miami and North New River canals south of Lake Okeechobee. This work will help expedite the design and subsequent construction” of the reservoir by gathering information to be used “in designing canal conveyance improvements for the reservoir project.”

“We are moving full speed ahead on this reservoir,” district governing board Chairman Federico Fernandez said. “We are working on multiple fronts at the same time to make the reservoir a reality without delay.”

Celeste De Palma, Audubon Florida’s director of Everglades Policy, said the district’s work “is part of what has to be done, but it’s not building the reservoir.”

“That’s why there was such an uproar from the environmental community over the lease,” De Palma said. “Given the choice between moving into 560 acres of land [last November] or being able to use the full extent of the land in March, I’ll take the 16,000 acres.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com