DeSantis’ executive order on water: The good, the unclear and the political

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Executive Order 23-06, issued Jan. 11, was a watershed moment in the history of Florida water politics — no pun intended.

It laid out what DeSantis characterized as a sweeping agenda to clean up Florida’s troubled waters, committed billions to Everglades restoration and other projects and directed state regulatory agencies to up their game.

It garnered loud praise from many, knee-jerk derision from others. But here at VoteWater we think the order — and all it might portend — is too important for a quick, hot take.

So: What’s really in Executive Order 23-06, and will it be the game-changer DeSantis claims?

We break it down into three categories: The good, the unclear, and the political. There are indeed many good things in the order, and others that could be good, depending. Other aspects of the order that sound good but mean little — and seem intended primarily to send the message that DeSantis is serious about the problem.

The good: Big money

DeSantis wants $3.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration projects, to complement the $3.3 billion secured since he took office.

This will have a big impact, assuming the Republican supermajority in the Florida House and Senate give DeSantis what he wants — and assuming we don’t fritter the money away on projects of questionable value, such as the Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells north of Lake Okeechobee which will primarily benefit big agriculture.

Water policymakers are almost unanimous in saying increased funding in recent years has generated tremendous momentum, pushing long-awaited clean-water projects into and through the pipeline. Whatever your political persuasion, that’s a good thing.

The good: The Indian River Lagoon Protection Program

DeSantis wants to spend another $100 million on a new “Indian River Lagoon Protection Program,” which would identify and expedite the most effective water-quality projects, step up water quality monitoring and septic-to-sewer conversions, and require wastewater facilities discharging into the lagoon upgraded to advanced wastewater treatment by 2025.

Lagoon advocacy groups say every incremental improvement in water quality will help the long-impaired lagoon to heal — so this program, if authorized by the Legislature, can help.

The good: Strengthening BMAPs and BMPs

“Basin Management Action Plans” (BMAPs) and “Best Management Practices (BMPs) are key to Florida’s water quality improvement program — and they’ve been failing. The state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force has called for significant improvements to both, and DeSantis’s order addresses some of the deficiencies.

BMAPs would be updated to include and prioritize projects needed to attain water quality standards; wastewater facilities discharging into BMAP areas would require upgrades; and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would work with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to seek funding for projects that address excess nutrient impacts from agricultural “nonpoint” sources in areas where agriculture has been identified as a significant polluter

BMPs would be strengthened via updated manuals and “Obtaining and reviewing site-specific data on BMP implementation, including parcel-level reporting of commodity and fertilizer application.” This is key, because if we know what’s being grown and how much fertilizer is being applied on any given parcel, we might be able to identify the culprits if water in the local basin turns up polluted.


The unclear: What happens when polluters are identified?

Unfortunately, DeSantis missed a chance to go a step further with BMPs by ending the “presumption of compliance,” where farmers who adopt BMPs are never tested to verify pollution reduction measures are actually working. And the order does not stipulate that regulators will use the “site-specific data” to actually identify polluters and take action.

It’s not enough for the state to have the relevant data; it has to act on that data, and given Florida’s regulatory track record, we’re not convinced that would happen.

The unclear: Will the state play a more robust role on growth?

With perhaps an eye on recent controversies where growth has been allowed to leapfrog urban development boundaries, the order calls for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to partner with local governments “to improve local government long-term comprehensive planning that ensures sustainable growth while protecting our natural resources, including … taxpayer investments in Everglades restoration projects and major land conservation and water quality protection programs.”

This sounds good, but what does it mean? Will the state play a bigger role in local comprehensive plan amendments, as was the case before then-Gov. Rick Scott eliminated the Department of Community Affairs? Will the state step in to curtail haphazard growth?

This provision certainly doesn’t promise it. And that leads us to: 

The political: Sounds good, means little

There are a lot of vague generalities in the DeSantis order, things that sound resolute but evaporate upon closer examination.

DeSantis orders the FDEP to tell the Blue-Green Algae Task Force to keep studying the problem and “provide additional recommendations for further state action.” But the task force already submitted recommendations, the vast majority of which were ignored. Would new recommendations sit on the shelf with the previous batch?

The South Florida Water Management District is ordered to “Continue expediting Everglades restoration projects, including Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP) projects and projects that minimize the risk of harmful discharges and send water south.” The district is further ordered to “Make every effort to advance Everglades restoration projects undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to ensure meaningful progress over the next four years.”

This means nothing; the district is already doing all this.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is directed to “Continue to seek consistent and meaningful annual funding for the Florida Forever Program, the state’s premier conservation and recreation land acquisition program.” But what does “meaningful” mean — $100 million? $300 million? Less? More?

And so on.

We don’t wish to diminish the good that will come of Executive Order 23-06; any honest assessment has to conclude that the money alone, if spent wisely, will help.

But in the order, DeSantis claims that since he took office, “we have made incredible progress, entering into a golden era for conservation and protection of our treasured natural resources.”

The reality is, since DeSantis came into office we’ve also seen the biggest manatee die-off in history. We’ve seen horrific red tide blooms ravage the west coast; we’ve watched seagrass die off in key waterways like the Indian River Lagoon. We saw the Piney Point disaster dump a year’s worth of nutrients into Tampa Bay in just 10 days. We’ve seen blue-green algal blooms become an annual event on Lake Okeechobee; we’ve seen a rise in public health advisories posted due to contamination by fecal bacteria.

Defenders might say, legitimately, that Florida’s long-simmering water crisis can’t be blamed solely on DeSantis. That’s fair.

But if this is a “golden era” — we don’t want to know what silver looks like.