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DeSantis to pause bans on fertilizer. Advocates worry it’ll worsen water woes

 Blue-green algae blooms as seen in Lake Okeechobee in May 2021.
Ralph Arwood
Calusa Waterkeeper
Blue-green algae blooms as seen in Lake Okeechobee in May 2021.

Nearly $800 million for water quality programs. Close to $700 million for Everglades restoration. A $100 million Indian River Lagoon Protection program.

These are all environmental projects Gov. Ron DeSantis proudly approved funding for at a press conference Thursday in Fort Pierce where he signed the largest state budget in history.

But many Florida environmentalists feel one critical action was missing — a line-item veto to a measure that would suspend creation of new city and county fertilizer bans past July 1 and fund a $250,000 study at the University of Florida to evaluate their effectiveness.

The legislature tacked the item onto the budget, which it approved in May. Its approval won’t affect existing fertilizer bans, like the one through October in Miami-Dade County. Rather, it’ll prevent cities and towns from creating new ordinances or extending existing ones.

Pushing a policy change through the budget rather than allowing it to go through the legislative process with public input was a mistake, said Eve Samples, executive director of environmental group Friends of the Everglades.

“It was really a sneak attack,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between what we’re seeing out of Tallahassee and the dire water quality issues we’re facing in Florida.”

Throughout Florida, there are more than 100 municipalities that restrict fertilizer use during the rainy season in order to prevent excess phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. This includes several in South Florida, including Ft. Lauderdale, Key Biscayne and Miami Beach.

High levels of these nutrients have been tied to persistent issues like diminishing sea grass, algal blooms and fish kills. For years, municipal fertilizer bans during rainier months have been heralded as one of local governments’ most effective tools to regulate water quality.

READ MORE: Fertilizer giant threw 'fundraiser' for Florida lawmaker who sponsored ‘radioactive roads’ bill

Friends of the Everglades joined more than 50 organizations throughout the state, including the Alachua County Commission, in writing DeSantis a letter, urging him to veto the line item.

Though the budget designates the most money in Florida history to the environment — almost $7.3 billion of a $116.5 billion total — the decision made about fertilizer is telling, Samples said.

“It doesn’t tell the full story,” she said. “We could allocate all of the money in the world for earthmoving projects. But if at the same time, we’re watering down our environmental protections in Florida, we’re not going to make meaningful progress.”

Jeremy Redfern, a DeSantis spokesperson, clarified the intent behind the approval in an email. It’s an effort to help control the study, he said.

“The purpose of the hold on new implementations ensures that fewer variables are introduced during the study period,” Redfern said.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who championed the county’s fertilizer ban three years ago after a Biscayne Bay fish kill was brought on by nutrient pollution and extreme heat, said she’s glad the decision doesn’t affect existing bans.

Higgins will keep an eye on the results of the study, she said. In the meantime, Miami-Dade County residents still need to comply with the ordinance — and should do so beyond its expiration.

“No matter what the Florida Legislature says, I would recommend that every single person in the state of Florida who has a yard and has a lawn, not fertilize it,” Higgins said. “Take matters into your own hands. Do the right thing to save our water system. Don’t fertilize. Period.”

Haley Busch, outreach director for environmental lobbying group 1000 Friends of Florida, said she’s wary of how the taxpayer-funded study’s results will be portrayed, especially considering the growing influence of the fertilizer industry on public research.

The positive impacts of fertilizer bans have already been well-studied, she said.

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which will be at the helm of the research, declined to comment on the governor’s decision to approve funding for the study.

“We have to ask ourselves about any action the state takes: Are we moving toward additional water quality protections or are we moving backwards?” Busch said. “By reopening study on this topic and tying the hands of our local government leaders, that doesn’t strengthen water quality protections.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.  
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

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