On Tuesday, January 10, 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis, through Executive Order 23-06, announced his administration’s environmental priorities for his second term in office. Building off Executive Order 19-12, the Governor’s latest Executive Order includes a request to the Florida Legislature to bolster environmental spending significantly from his previous goal of $2.5 billion over the course of his first four years in office. Tuesday’s announcement highlights the Governor’s continued commitment to environmental spending by seeking $3.5 billion over his second term from the Legislature for Everglades restoration and the protection of water resources, including water quality and quantity. Although Everglades restoration funding received top billing in the media, multiple aspects of the Executive Order, as well as department rulemaking, should be followed closely during the upcoming legislative session, given the suggested statutory or administrative mandates imposed on local governments, utilities, and permit holders.
What’s Included in the Executive Order?
The Executive Order seeks to expand the current Wastewater Grant Program administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which provides grants to governmental entities for wastewater projects that reduce excess nutrient pollution.
If the Legislature amends the program, DEP could add nonpoint source projects (projects addressing contaminants derived naturally, such as through stormwater and agricultural runoff) and aging wastewater infrastructure projects to the existing statutory list of eligible projects. Eligible projects currently include septic-to-sewer conversions, advanced septic system upgrades, and upgrades to advanced wastewater treatment projects. Furthermore, DEP must engage with local governments and stakeholders to identify the most effective and beneficial water quality improvement projects, which DEP typically prioritizes based on the most improvement per dollar spent. Although the Executive Order recommends the inclusion of several types of projects, local government projects that achieve septic-to-sewer conversions will continue to be the priority.
Also subject to a legislative change, the Executive Order contains a mandate to upgrade to advanced wastewater treatment by 2033 for those wastewater facilities discharging within a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) that does not currently meet water quality standards. While advanced wastewater treatment processes can be biological, physicochemical, or a combination, the upgrades are rarely inexpensive. Close attention should be paid to this mandate in the legislative session and upcoming rulemaking.
Indian River Lagoon Protection Program
For the first time publicly, the Governor released further details surrounding a new Indian River Lagoon (IRL) Protection Program with a recurring $100 million in annual funding for water quality restoration projects. Future codification of the program would require the following:
- Coordination with stakeholders, federal agencies, local governments, water management districts, and IRL National Estuary Program to prioritize projects for water quality restoration;
- An increase in water quality monitoring in the IRL to identify nutrient loading;
- Ensuring the use of available sewering;
- Reducing septic density and ensuring appropriate setbacks for new septic systems;
- Prioritizing septic-to-sewer conversions of traditional systems around the IRL; and
- Investment in the expansion of wastewater treatment capacity.
Most importantly, the new program would ensure all wastewater facilities discharging to the IRL meet advanced wastewater treatment mandates by July 1, 2025, which is currently only required for domestic wastewater treatment facilities.
Continued Coordination Across the Environmental Spectrum
The Executive Order continues the Blue Green Algae Task Force and mandates DEP to coordinate with a broad spectrum of executive agencies on environmental matters, including:
- Continued coordination with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Health, and the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force on investigating harmful algal blooms and extending the Red Tide Emergency Grant Program;
- Updating all BMAPs to prioritize projects most likely to yield maximum pollutant reductions while mandating local governments expedite high-priority projects; and
- Working with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) to obtain funding for regional projects where agriculture is a significant source of nutrient pollution.
On the agricultural front, the Governor encourages DEP and FDACS to further work together to:
- Conduct a data-driven review and update of agricultural best management practices (BMP);
- Review site-specific data on BMP implementation and focus on parcel-level accounting;
- Ensure 100% BMP enrollment; and
- For the first time, DEP must work with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on long-term comprehensive planning to protect natural resources while ensuring sustainable growth with sewer connections and prioritize advanced wastewater treatment.
During the 2021 Legislative Session, the Governor and Legislature championed significant funding and substantive policy relating to a coordinated approach to Florida’s coastal and inland resiliency. The Resilient Florida Program focuses on protecting inland waterways, coastlines, and shores, which serve as a natural resource defense against sea level rise.
The Executive Order promises continued funding of the Resilient Florida Program and support for completing comprehensive sea level rise vulnerability assessments for all counties and municipalities by 2026. In addition, Governor DeSantis has pledged continued funding for recovery from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.
For those communities in coastal areas, the Executive Order includes a new Coral Reef Restoration and Recovery Initiative to increase propagation and restoration efforts and mandates an additional focus on seagrass recovery; however, it did not include a suggested funding amount.
The 2023 Legislative Session will commence on March 7, 2023, with committee weeks continuing on January 17, 2023. Most of the Governor’s suggested agenda will be implemented through the legislative process. Although much of the Governor’s agenda is subject to legislative changes and appropriations, departmental rulemaking can serve to implement a significant portion of the Executive Order.
The GrayRobinson Environmental and Sustainability Law Team, comprised of a team of attorneys, advisors, and consultants, continuously monitors executive actions, the legislative process, and department rulemaking. Our team of professionals is available to help you through permitting and grant processes for both new and existing environmental grants.
Contact Ryan Matthews, a former Secretary of the DEP; John Truitt, a former Deputy Secretary of the DEP; or a member of the GrayRobinson Environmental and Sustainability Law Team.