The early days of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' second term are brimming with news about water.
In DeSantis' inaugural address Jan. 3, the Republican governor touted his investments to improve the state's water quality, and he promised that millions more will come in the next legislative session.
Democratic state lawmakers aren’t sold on DeSantis' environmental success; one House member from St. Petersburg said the opposite is true.
"The results are clear — Florida's water is dirtier and sicker than when Gov. DeSantis first took office," state Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, said in a Jan. 3 statement.
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We wanted to know whether Florida's water quality had declined as Cross said. We quickly learned that the words chosen by Cross, an environmental scientist, aren't the same words that environmental agencies use to test and track water conditions.
Cross also didn't specify what kind of water she was talking about.
There are many different kinds of water bodies in Florida — lakes; rivers; springs; and beachfront waters (also called nearshore waters), to name a few. Each system has its own challenges, and there's no catch-all unit of measurement to summarize the health of all water in the state.
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When we asked Cross for evidence of her claim, she said: "My statement refers to the state broadly, but particularly in our coastal estuaries." She said algae blooms, including red tide and blue-green algae, are lasting longer and causing more damage.
Estuaries are bodies of water where the freshwater from rivers or streams converges with the saltwater of the ocean. The largest estuary in Florida is Tampa Bay, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Here's what we found when we tested Cross’ claim. DeSantis’ press office directed us to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
More estuaries aren't meeting water quality standards under DeSantis
We reached out to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection for information on the overall health of the state's water, but we did not receive a response in time for publication.
As part of the federal Clean Water Act, the department must submit a biannual report on Florida's water bodies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
This report provides an analysis of the bodies of water in Florida that have become too polluted for swimming or drinking. The department examines streams, lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters for water quality and outlines the root causes of pollution.
PolitiFact reviewed the department reports from 2018, 2020 and 2022. We found that a growing number of the state’s water bodies are impaired — meaning, they do not meet water quality standards.
In 2018, before DeSantis took office, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported that 2.5 million acres of the state's estuaries were polluted and not suitable for drinking or recreation. That number declined to 2.1 million in 2020 before growing to 3.1 million in 2022.
That increase was fueled partly by a surge in nutrient pollution, which can worsen algae blooms that are toxic for wildlife and cause health complications for people swimming in or drinking from such waters.
Florida's lakes and coastal waters face similar challenges
Other bodies of water in Florida also experienced an initial decrease in pollution when DeSantis entered office and then an uptick toward the end of his first term.
- Lakes: In 2018, more than 1 million acres of lakes across Florida were identified as unsuitable for swimming and aquatic life. The count dropped to about 893,000 acres in 2020, before rising to 2.1 million in 2022.
- Coastal waters: Coastal waters, which include beachfront waters, had a far less dramatic shift in pollution. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection identified 2,718 miles of coast as impaired in 2018. The count fell to 1,529 miles in 2020 and rose to 1,570 in 2022.
Florida’s streams had a consistent decline in miles of impaired water, however. In 2018, more than 70,000 miles of streams were polluted. By 2022, that dropped to 15,000.
Cross mentioned red tide and blue-green algae blooms to support her assertion that the state’s waters are dirtier. Although red tide has been all over recent news, there's a data issue with comparing these events over time.
We could not find data that compared the overall severity and extent of algal blooms from one calendar year to the next during DeSantis' tenure.
"In the Everglades and throughout Florida's lakes, harmful toxic algae blooms have become an almost annual event fed by fertilizer runoff from farms and subdivisions," the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., concluded after reviewing state reports.
The Environmental Integrity Project evaluated the latest water quality analyses submitted by each state. Its report was released March 17, 2022, a month before Florida released the latest data on the state's water. According to the report:
- Florida ranked first in the nation for total acres of lakes deemed too polluted for swimming and aquatic life. When looking at the percentage of lakes assessed, Florida ranked fourth.
- Florida also has the second most square miles of polluted estuaries in the U.S. It ranked ninth when looking at the percentage of estuaries assessed.
While acknowledging the issues of Florida's water, experts said the problems are nothing new.
"Florida’s had water issues for as long as people have been selling real estate down here. So, these issues definitely predated DeSantis," said Matt DePaolis, environmental policy director at the nonprofit Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.
DeSantis also pursued several actions to improve the state’s water quality. He reestablished the Blue-Green Algae task force to report on "the causes and solutions to Florida's red tide crisis," and invested a total of $40 million to address the problem.
But DeSantis could always do more, DePaolis said.
The Blue-Green Algae Task Force, for instance, provided 33 recommendations in 2019. A coalition of environmental organizations found in August 2022 that 27 recommendations had not been enacted.
DeSantis announced a proposal Jan. 10 to invest an additional $3 million to address issues impacting Florida's environment and water.
Cross said Florida's water is "dirtier and sicker" than when DeSantis took office in 2019.
Her statement is broad, and there is also no catch-all unit of measurement to determine whether all of Florida's distinct water bodies are dirtier or sicker. But experts mostly agreed with her assessment of the declining state of Florida's water quality, noting that the underlying conditions predate DeSantis’ tenure.
Comprehensive analyses submitted to the EPA during DeSantis' time in the governor's office show that a growing number of the state's water bodies, including estuaries and lakes, are impaired — meaning, they do not meet water quality standards. The state of coastal waters and streams has improved since before DeSantis’ time in office.
The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.
This story originally appeared on PolitiFact.