© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Friends of the Everglades reacts to controversial bill that would alter restoration efforts

Everglades Restoration
Storm clouds form over the Florida Everglades which are facing an environmental storm caused by pollution and man's interference with the ecosystem. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed work on a $339 million Everglades restoration project aimed at cleansing water runoff before it flows into a troubled Florida river.

Senate Bill 2508 would require the South Florida Water Management District to advocate for farmers to get more water in exchange for funding for clean water projects.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson are at odds over the measure. DeSantis has blasted the bill, while Simpson has expressed his support.

The bill passed (16-4) in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, despite vehement public opposition. It's headed for debate in the Senate on Thursday.

Valerie Crowder spoke with Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples about what the measure would mean for the state’s vulnerable wetlands preserve.

What would SB 2508 mean for Everglades restoration efforts?

We have three main concerns about 2508, and they boil down to manipulation of the new Lake Okeechobee plan.

For three years, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on a new plan for the lake which will govern when and where water moves from the lake for the next decade, and it's been a pretty transparent process so far. Unfortunately, what this bill would do — one of the bad things it would do — is put into state law protections for large industrial agriculture operations south of the lake for their water supply, mainly sugar cane growers, at the expense of environmental protections and flexibility.

It would really built in to state law keeping Lake Okeechobee artificially high during the dry months for irrigation of hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane south of the lake, and that would be detrimental to the southern Everglades. And that would also be detrimental to the northern estuaries during the rainy season if the lake is too high, held artificially high. So that's number one. That's that's our really, arguably our top concern about the bill.

Number two is a very questionable provision related to wetlands permitting. This is known as 404 dredge and fill permitting. It's an authority that the state of Florida took over from the federal government a couple years back, and what this provision would allow is for public entities, including utilities, to pay to expedite permit reviews. So the state would enter into a contract with utilities to do permit reviews for wetland dredge and fill permits. So that's really concerning to us, and we don't know much more than what is in the bill because unfortunately the way this bill has been handled is that it's been attached to the budget. So there's only been one committee hearing only one opportunity for public comment in a committee hearing. And now it goes on to budget negotiations. So really alarming. That's number two.

And then finally, the bill proposes a change in how the state funds Everglades restoration projects, it adds a few projects to the mix and appears to bump them up in the priority line. The one that gives us pause is the Lake Okeechobee watershed restoration plan that's north of the lake. And it is very dependent on aquifer storage and recovery wells about eighty wells north of the lake that would pump water into the aquifer underground, to store it and then retrieve it when it's needed. This is largely a water supply feature for agriculture. It's not a restoration project. It won't help the lake that much. It won't help prevent toxic algae blooms from being discharged to the coast because these wells just can't handle that much water.

Were you surprised that it passed in the Senate Appropriations Committee? 

Unfortunately, I was not surprised that it passed. I was surprised it popped up in the first place. It was filed last Friday afternoon, with very little fanfare. Those of us who got wind of it had to piece together what it meant because it does have so many different dangerous provisions.

Ron DeSantis, Ron Bergeron
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference on a remaining part of the Old Tamiami Trail roadbed, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, near the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Miami. The roadbed, which was being removed, acted as a dam preventing water to flow from the Central Everglades into Everglades National Park.

We figured because it was filed that way, and it was filed through the appropriations committee, it had the support of leadership in the Senate, which turned out to be true. Wilton Simpson, the senate president, has put out a statement supporting it. It was very forcibly defended by two future Senate presidents Kathleen Passidomo who ironically is from Southwest Florida, which has been devastated by toxic algae blooms. She's in favor of this bill. And also Senator Ben Albritton, whose district is more agricultural in nature. So we saw that support.

And if you watch the committee hearing, there was really vociferous opposition from residents around the state to the bill who traveled to Tallahassee to speak against it. And they made a lot of really compelling cases. But unfortunately, they were not only dismissed by the senators, the sixteen senators who voted for this bad bill, but they were disrespected, too.

What do you make of the political showdown that's taken place between Governor Ron DeSantis and Senate President Wilton Simpson over this bill?

Yesterday was a really interesting day at the South Florida Water Management District meeting. That governing board consists of nine DeSantis appointees, all of whom voiced concerns about this bill at their meeting yesterday. And of course, DeSantis put out a statement blasting the bill. Simpson put out a statement supporting the bill. And it is shaping up to be a really intense political battle. This is high-political drama. That's unfortunately for the residents of Florida going to play out in budget negotiations. These are substantial policy measures that should be vetted, should be subject to multiple public hearings in their own right. And unfortunately, it's going to be lumped in with budget negotiations.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.