Shortly after last year’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 6, the Seminole Tribe’s Natural Resources Director Alex Johns received an email from the staff of then Governor-elect Ron DeSantis asking if he would serve on his transition team. Johns and about 40 or 50 others said yes to the request and began to work on policy issues affecting the state.
“I believe this position I have accepted gives the Seminole Tribe a seat at the table and a voice in State policy,” Johns wrote in an email to the Board. “The opportunity to serve the Governor and the State of Florida is not one that I take lightly.”
Johns worked on the committee that addressed environmental issues pertaining to water quality and supply, ecosystems, species, natural resources and agriculture. His work on the transition team helped to develop the administration’s environmental, natural resources and agriculture policies.
Johns, who also serves as president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, focused on water quality and supply. Water quality, specifically the abundance of algae, was the biggest challenge because of the perception of the issues versus the science.
Often, the public perception is that water problems are caused by agriculture.
“The public is uneducated about the true problem, so it’s easier for them to place blame,” Johns said. “The transition team understood the science.”
The committee looked at the science and the facts.
Every day about 1,000 people move to Florida, which already has about 20 million residents. The state also welcomes about 100 million visitors annually. There are a lot of antiquated sewage systems in the state, including some that dump sewage directly into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Fertilizer used in private yards is not monitored as diligently as agricultural usage is. Municipal waste water systems and septic systems also contribute to the amount of nutrients in the water, which feeds the algae.
“Blue-green algae are not coming from Lake Okeechobee,” Johns explained. “It comes from the Kissimmee River basin and ends up in estuaries and Lake Okeechobee. The algae mine the nutrients out of the water and feed off them. It’s a natural occurrence, but when there are plenty of nutrients there will be plenty of algae.”
The quantity of algae isn’t the only water issue in the state. Red tide, a naturally occurring event born about 40 miles offshore in the deep water of the Gulf, migrates to the surface and flows close to shore. Johns said the nutrients and algae from the freshwater outflow goes out to sea and intensifies the problem.
“The governor has an action plan and fully understands the problem,” Johns said. “No one on the transition team blames agriculture and they understand how to clean it up. But there are policies in place he inherited and he has to deal with those plans. At the same time, he’s able to start looking at policy going forward.”
The committee made recommendations to DeSantis who, two days after his inauguration, signed an executive order implementing reforms to protect the state’s environment and water quality.
“Our water and natural resources are the foundation of our economy and our way of life in Florida,” DeSantis stated in a Jan. 10 press release. “The protection of water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing our state. That’s why today I’m taking immediate action to combat the threats which have devastated our local economies and threatened the health of our communities.”
• Allots $2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and protection of water resources.
• Establishes a blue-green algae task force.
• Instructs the South Florida Water Management District to begin the next phase of the Everglades agricultural area storage reservoir project.
• Creates the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency to organize and direct scientific research and analysis to ensure all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.
• Appoints a chief science officer to coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis.
“It’s up to agriculture and politicians to tell the public the story based on real science,” Johns said. “They want to start to reach out to people to educate them and encourage best management practices for golf courses, homeowners associations and individual homeowners.”
Although Johns and the rest of the transition team’s job is done, they are available if the administration has questions or wants input.