Barely a week after positioning himself as the new champion of Florida’s polluted waterways and beaches, the new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is facing an early test of the environmental credentials that have put him at odds with his predecessor, Rick Scott.
DeSantis has called for the mass resignation of Scott’s hand-picked team of water policy managers, after they defied his request to delay awarding an eight-year land lease extension to the sugar industry giant Florida Crystals in the fragile Everglades wetlands. The land, south of Lake Okeechobee, is earmarked for a $1.6bn clean-water storage reservoir that DeSantis wants completed within four years, to hasten restoration of the state’s famous River of Grass.
But several of the directors of the South Florida water management district, which is responsible for water quality from Orlando to the Florida Keys, are continuing to refuse his demand that they step down, setting the stage for DeSantis to forcibly remove them from office over a snap November land lease vote that environmental groups criticised as “illegal, shameful and undemocratic”.
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The fight with Scott’s panel of industry-friendly representatives highlights DeSantis’s desire to seize control of Florida’s water policy in the wake of the red tide epidemic of toxic algae that swamped the state, wrecked tourism and killed tens of thousands of marine animals last year.
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While red tide is a naturally occurring bacterial phenomenon, environmentalists say the outbreak was made far worse by fertilisers and other poisonous agricultural run-off from farming and sugar industries.
“Our water and natural resources are the foundation of our economy and our way of life in Florida,” DeSantis said in announcing a $2.5bn package of environmental improvements. “The protection of water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing the state.”
He also said red tide had “devastated our local economies and threatened the health of our communities”.
The spat also highlights substantial policy differences with Scott that have led to DeSantis being cast as “the green governor“ by some. Scott, elected as a US senator in November after two terms in Tallahassee, has a long record of campaign contributions from the sugar industry and was accused by environmental groups of favouring industry over ecology in numerous policy decisions.
DeSantis refused money from so-called big sugar and promised to reduce the industry’s influence on Florida politics and the amount of pollutants it pumps into waterways in the the form of agricultural run-off contaminated by phosphorus and nitrogen.
DeSantis was the surprise winner of last summer’s primary against the agricultural commissioner, Adam Putnam, who received more than $8m, either directly or indirectly, from sugar industry donations. His early break with Scott’s pro-business stance came just days after he declared at his inauguration that the environment would be his top priority and unveiled the $2.5bn package designed to help clean up the Everglades, tackle rising seas and block offshore drilling.
The DeSantis agenda also creates a taskforce to look into solutions for red tide and blue-green algae, another naturally occurring phenomenon that has clogged inland rivers and canals. And notably for a candidate who won a close race for the governor’s mansion after aligning himself closely with Donald Trump, the US president who claims climate change is a hoax, DeSantis is creating an office of environmental accountability and transparency, to be led by a “chief science officer”.
DeSantis said during the campaign he “wasn’t a climate change denier” and neither did he want to be labelled a believer, but the appointment would place a scientist at the head of state environmental policy for the first time.
To advocates weary of what they saw as Scott’s “election-year environmentalism”, DeSantis offers a welcome change of direction.
“To come out less than 48 hours after taking office with a bold executive order full of about a dozen items, I’d say he is as serious as a heart attack,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation.
“It’s a new day to have a Republican governor, or any governor, saying he specifically wants a chief science officer, and an office of resiliency is a clear indication this governor wants to tackle the difficult issues.”
“What DeSantis has said is he wants a new start and an agency that’s going to be focused on natural resources, the Everglades and cleaning up the algae, not an agency working for the special interests of the sugar industry.”
The agency sees things differently. A spokesman referred the Guardian to an 8 November press release in which the governing board chair, Federico Fernandez, claimed work on the project was already under way and that the granting of the lease was required under state law to prevent agricultural land lying fallow until it was needed.
Of the nine board members, one resigned in January for unrelated reasons and two, Dan O’Keefe and Carlos Diaz, agreed to DeSantis’s request to stand down. But four others refused to resign, according to Treasure Coast newspapers, including three whose terms expire in March.
“The arrogance displayed over the past 24 hours by the board is indicative of how they have operated for the better part of a decade – without transparency and with disdain,” said Brian Mast, a US congressman and a DeSantis ally and environmental policy adviser, in a statement.
“They have failed to exercise even the most basic, legally required level of transparency and therefore should be removed for cause.”
Florida Crystals, whose subsidiary the New Hope Sugar company was the lease beneficiary, did not respond to a request for comment.