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One step forward, two steps back?

By Staff | Feb 17, 2022

In November, Gov. Ron DeSantis made stops in Naples and Miami to announce a billion dollar-plus proposal to continue efforts for the restoration of the Everglades and water quality improvements.

His proposal called for more than “$960 million for Everglades restoration and the protection of water resources and more than $550 million to continue to support efforts to ensure that state and local communities are prepared to deal with the impacts of sea level rise, intensified storms, and flooding,” according to the announcement from his office

The $960 million portion would bring the tally for Everglades restoration and related initiative to more than $3 billion in four years.

That’s some big bucks which Gov. DeSantis said carries some big bang.

“When I took office, I outlined a bold vision to protect Florida’s environment, and we have not only kept the promises we made, we’ve exceeded them,” said he said in November. “We are excited to announce this historic support for Florida’s environment, Everglades restoration, and our water resources. We have seen great results so far, but we are not yet at the finish line. It’s nice to see so many coming together to support these initiatives. We will be pushing hard to continue the momentum this legislative session.”

Three months later, members of his own party are making waves, passing on Thursday a Florida Senate bill slammed out of the gate not only by many environmental groups but by the governor himself.

The Florida Senate passed SB 2508 on third reading 37-2, with amendments to both correct “misinformation” about its impact but also to, perhaps, prevent a veto.

Critics had said the legislation as originally proposed would undermine “years of work with all stakeholders involved to achieve a balanced plan for the future management of Lake Okeechobee” and its management process.”

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is among those who called for opposition to SB 2508.

According to the Conservancy, the bill as first proposed would “allow public entities, including utilities, to contribute funding to state permitting agencies to expedite processing of their environmental resource and Clean Water Act Section 404 permit applications. This is problematic because the regulated community should not be allowed to pay an agency to fast-track permit review.”

Critics also said the bill would modify how the state funds Everglades restoration projects, “potentially allowing questionable projects, such as Aquifer storage and recovery north of the lake, to compete for funding with essential projects such as the EAA Reservoir,” the organization stated.

The original bill passed the Appropriations Committee 16-4 on Feb. 9 with Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) among those voting in favor of the bill.

Gov. DeSantis’s reaction the next day?

“I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades,” DeSantis said in a Feb. 10 statement opposing SB 2508. “Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.

“Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.”

This would be interesting to watch as it plays out now as the measure goes to the House and those who have been critical weigh in, but the stakes are too high for politics-as-usual to be amusing this go around.

One, Southwest Florida — all of South Florida — has paid dearly for years on neglect on the waterfront.

All of us who lived through it remember well the “environmental hurricane” of 2018 when discharges from Lake Okeechobee played a primary role in one of the worst outbreaks of red tide our coast has seen, coupled with the double whammy of the Caloosahatchee’s first and worst blue-green algal blooms.

Fish died by the tons — yes, tons — littering Lee beaches with corpses that also included endangered goliath grouper, sea turtles and more.

Cape canals were souped pea green for weeks.

And meanwhile the state has committed — rightfully so — billions of our tax dollars to projects related to the restoration the Everglades, which also will mitigate the nutrient-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee on which these algal “blooms” feed.

So, no, there’s nothing amusing about an “environmental resources” bill bypassing the typical legislative committee process to propose fast-track pay-to-play for permitting.

It epitomizes, though, the follow-the-money funny business with which the legislative process so often has been fraught.

–Breeze editorial