Commentary

Good news! You’re Florida’s new governor. Bad news: Now you have to save our environment

Water pollution, dead manatees, climate change — here’s a list of what to tackle

November 10, 2022 7:00 am

North Florida’s Wakulla Springs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Imagine you were just elected the governor of the third largest state in the U.S.

You. Not the guy who, according to his recent ad, Jehovah created special on the eighth day. And not the guy who has been mistakenly called “Christ” yet couldn’t resurrect the Democratic Party in Florida.

It’s all on you. And you’re facing a God-awful task.

You’ve got to fix Florida’s ailing environment before it crashes, taking the whole state down.

Don’t panic! I’ve got suggestions. Grab some paper and a pen. I’ll list the top five things you need to tackle.

The big-money folks — the developers, real estate speculators, sugar companies, and utilities who bankrolled your campaign — will tell you that things are not that bad. Maybe they’re just ignorant. Or maybe they don’t care about trashing the place where they make a living.

But you do. Or you should.

In Florida, the environment is the economy. If you screw up one, you’ve screwed up the other. And we’ve screwed up the environment, big time. That recent pile-up of dead manatees is just one sign. One more looming toxic algae bloom is another.

I contacted a bunch of Florida environmental activists to see if they were thinking what I was thinking on this subject. Many were.

Job one, several agreed, is fixing Florida’s nasty water pollution problem.

“We believe that improving water quality in Florida should be our number one priority,” said Alycia Downs of Captains for Clean Water.

How bad is it now? Bad.

Estus Whitfield. Credit: Florida Conservation Coalition

“From north to south, east to west, Florida’s natural waters are being degraded by agricultural and urban runoff, septic tanks, and wastewater treatment plant discharges,” said Estus Whitfield, who for 30 years was principal environmental adviser to Florida’s governors. “And the state is doing little or nothing to handle the problem.”

Write that down: No. 1. Fix water pollution — pronto.

Sleepy manatees

All this dire talk about Florida’s polluted waterways runs counter to the “Animal House” all-is-well narrative put forward by one recent campaign ad.

The ad — the work of a group I believe is called “The Committee for a Fact-Free Florida” — says that the guy who’s been governor for the last four years “improved our water quality” and “protected Biscayne Bay.”

That last part’s going to be a big surprise to anyone who saw the big fish kill in Biscayne Bay last month. The Miami Herald noted that it was “likely caused by the same low oxygen and high pollution levels that caused the last major fish kill in August 2020.”

Repeated fish kills make it obvious that the claim that the bay has been “protected” is about as accurate as claiming that our incumbent looked stylish in his Nancy Sinatra boots.

As for the boast that we’re seeing “improved water quality”?

That’s like saying that the 1,000-plus manatees that have turned up dead recently from starvation were merely taking a nap. They’ll soon awake feeling refreshed and ready to, as Dory says in “Finding Nemo,” just keep swimming.

“The underlying conditions that led to last year’s historic manatee die-off still exist,” said Eve Samples of Friends of the Everglades. “Spending millions … to feed manatees romaine lettuce is an inane solution unless it’s coupled with a meaningful state effort to curtail water pollution that kills the seagrass manatees feed on.”

So how can you, the new governor, fix the water pollution problem? Easy! Do what the guy who occupied the post for the last four years should have done:

Follow the advice of the blue-ribbon science panel he appointed to recommend solutions, said Gil Smart of Vote Water.

The panel made some solid suggestions for cleaning up Florida’s waterways of pollution-fueled algae blooms. So far, 87 percent of their recommendations have been ignored.

Instead, the Legislature passed a law that calls for nothing but voluntary compliance.

Speaking as someone who routinely jaywalks, I can assure you that “voluntary compliance” is the equivalent of “ain’t gonna happen.”

The Legislature picked voluntary compliance because it’s easy. They could name their law “the Clean Waterways Act,” snicker about fooling the rubes, and not offend any of their campaign contributors.

Blue-green algae blooms. Credit: UF/IFAS, University of Florida

But that doesn’t stop those pollution-fueled toxic algae blooms, does it? And toxic algae blooms have consequences, not just for manatees but for humans.

You, as governor, have to take drastic action. Whip those lawmakers into shape. Make them do what’s right for the state. If need be, call them out publicly for siding with polluters over the people.

“Lawmakers have to get tough on polluters and stop pollution at the source,” said Aliki Moncrief of Florida Conservation Voters.

We have five state agencies in charge of protecting our water resources. But they’ve been limping along ever since they were slashed to ribbons by a prior governor named Rick “Which Way to My Yacht?” Scott.

That’s why Charles Lee of Audubon Florida recommends you “invest in Florida’s water management districts as water becomes an increasingly limiting resource.”

Got that? Good. Now let’s move on.

‘Pre-disastered’ overdevelopment

Ready for Number 2? I mean on your list. We’ve already talked about our busted sewage systems.

Here it is: Get a handle on out-of-control growth.

“Following a destructive hurricane season, it’s clear we desperately need to restore strong growth-management practices in Florida,” Samples said.

Right now we’re letting the developers run amok, building in places where they shouldn’t.

“The natural places that make Florida special AND more resilient to storms, heat, flooding, etc., are being destroyed at an alarming rate,” Moncrief said. “Meanwhile, continued development in sensitive areas also puts communities in harm’s way.”

Hurricane Ian showed what happens when you overbuild in low-lying areas. Yet people — many of them new purchasers! — are gearing up to rebuild in exactly the same spot.

An area that once contained a building is shown swept clear following Hurricane Ian on Oct. 3, 2022, in Fort Myers Beach. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It’s as if they’ve taken to heart the philosophy of the plane crash scene in “The World According to Garp.” They feel that they’ve been “pre-disastered.” Nothing bad will ever come their way again!

But happen again it will. Just ask the folks who lived in that area during Hurricane Charley in 2004.

Meanwhile, it’s become easier than ever for developers to pave over everything. Under the prior president, the state took over issuing federal wetland permits. The state Department of Environmental Protection — sorry, I meant to put air-quotes around that last word — has proven to be overly generous with those permits.

So this one’s a two-parter: 2A is “hand that wetlands permitting authority back to the feds,” while 2B is “steer new growth to the areas where it’s appropriate.”

Florida used to have a good growth management system. That Scott fella shuttered it (notice a trend?). Instead, we now have a Department of Economic Opportunity.

Lee suggests: Reactivate the Office of Community Planning in that agency. Have it provide a meaningful review of local government comprehensive plan amendments. Focus on saving “resources of state significance.”

Supposedly the Sunshine State

Read for No. 3? It’s a big one.

Steer Florida away from fossil fuels.

For the past 12 years, this state has been run by people — starting with Scott, once again — who can’t stand to say the words “climate change,” much less do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the sea level has been creeping higher, the heat’s been rising, the hurricanes growing more intense.

“Unless we get a handle on climate, no other environmental attribute of our state is solvable,” said John Capece of Kissimmee Waterkeeper.

Our governor for the past four years has been willing to spend big bucks on protecting waterfront property owners from rising seas. But he refuses to lift a finger to do anything else.

He even defends those profiteering oil and gas companies. Last year he signed a law blocking local governments from switching away from fossil fuels.

You, as the new governor, have to change that. I mean, we’re supposed to be the Sunshine State.

Push for policies that will add more solar power and more electric vehicles (and fast-charging stations). Repeal that 2021 bill and allow local governments to choose alternative energy sources.

Maybe you could even push for a cap-and-trade system like the one this state nearly had back in 2011. That was before Scott (him again!) took over.

When the big utilities challenge you, point out that when Ian hit, solar city Babcock Ranch never lost power.

An oldie but a goodie

No. 4 is an oldie but a goodie: Remove the Kirkpatrick Dam and free the Ocklawaha River.

None of my activist experts listed this one, but it’s an issue that I think about a lot. To me, it symbolizes a lot of what goes on in Florida involving the environment.

George Kirkpatrick Dam at Rodman Reservoir. Credit: Sandra Friend, USDA Forest Service

Built in 1968 as part of the aborted Cross-Florida Barge Canal, the dam and its Rodman Reservoir have been repeatedly targeted for removal. A Democrat, Lawton Chiles, wanted to tear the dam down. So did a Republican, Jeb Bush. Both failed.

The dam and reservoir have been spared from the wrecking ball by a small group of anglers who have a lock on our legislators’ ear (and, apparently, other parts of their anatomy). They insist that the dam is worth keeping because the bass fishing is good.

Removing the dam would do more than just free what should be a wild and scenic Florida river, containing plenty of fish for those eager anglers.

It would uncover some 20 springs that were drowned by that long-ago construction project. And it would provide a good winter refuge for manatees, which are now in dire need of a good place to ride out cold weather.

“Some of these springs … could provide habitat for 100 manatees or more each,” according to the Florida Springs Council.

A few manatees successfully navigate the dam’s locks. Others get squashed flatter than roadkill on I-75. Given how many are already dying from starvation and being hit by boats, eliminating the locks as a cause of death would be helpful.

Pull the plug and let the reservoir drain.

Now, at last, here’s No. 5

Spring forward

The easy one to list here would be “restore the Everglades.” But even Florida politicians who enact policies bad for the environment claim to be fans of restoring the Everglades.

Instead, my No. 5 item, suggested by Whitfield, recommends you pay as much attention to another feature of the Florida landscape that is as remarkable as the River of Grass.

I’m talking about our North Florida springs.

Ginnie Springs, 2017. Credit: John Moran.

Florida has more first-magnitude springs than anywhere else in the world — “first magnitude” referring to how much water gushes out of the underground aquifer. And we are doing our best to kill them. We rob them of their flow while polluting them.

The scary thing is that the springs aren’t just some pretty fountain. They’re a window into what’s happening with our drinking water supply.

“Water withdrawal permits are free for the asking,” Whitfield said. “The aquifers are being over-pumped by municipalities, agriculture, and anybody who wishes to.”

As a result, he said, we face “a serious water supply problem (maybe crisis) within the next few years. Our springs are flowing low and there is no answer.”

We once had a Florida Springs Initiative, launched by Jeb “Please Clap for My Punctuation” Bush. But Scott (again with that guy!) ended it.

You, as governor, should revive that springs program. Maybe you could call it “Spring Forward.” And while you’re at it, clamp down on giving out withdrawal permits like they’re Halloween candy.

That’s it! Those are the five things you need to do as soon as you set foot in the governor’s mansion.

Looking over this list, I wish you HAD won. I bet the manatees do too — or will when they wake up.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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