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South Florida Water District Picks New Leader

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
National Parks Conservation Association
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A key player on Everglades issues was elevated Monday to become executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, replacing Pete Antonacci who is leaving to become Gov. Rick Scott's top business recruiter.
The district's Governing Board unanimously agreed during a teleconference to promote Ernie Marks, district director of Everglades policy and coordination, to executive director.

Board members said the move will avoid disruptions in ongoing water projects throughout the district's 16-county region, which stretches from Orlando to the Florida Keys.

“We have a lot of projects that are critical, that we are on the cusp of completing, and having a seamless transition in that leadership is very, very important,” board member Brandon Tucker said. “I think those relationships that Mr. Marks has with our partnering agencies, and all these things we have going on, I believe he'll do a tremendous job.”

Cara Capp, Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it's important to have a director who “knows the science, who understands the ecology of the ecosystem we're working to protect.”

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida and a prominent environmental lobbyist, called Marks “approachable” and said he's “provided solid leadership during a difficult period for the agency.”
Conservationists have grown bothered with Antonacci in recent weeks, with concerns raised after he threatened to shift district funding for Everglades research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to the University of Florida. Antonacci, in a July 5 letter to the federal review board, noted “unscientific meddling” in state operations.

Meanwhile, the district is working to increase the flow of freshwater to Florida Bay. The district is also starting on a $1.6 billion state and federal reservoir project in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee that was approved by the Legislature this spring.

“It's a major, major effort,” Florida Oceanographic Society Executive Director Mark Perry said of Everglades restoration. “I think whoever is in this position has to realize what coordination is and to try to coordinate with not only the state agencies that need to get involved but also our federal partners.”

Marks is expected to strengthen the district's federal partnerships, said district Governing Board Chairman Dan O'Keefe.

“I think so much of what we're doing at the district right now is very time critical,” O'Keefe said. “We have so many projects on the way, we're making so much progress.”

Marks, who joined the district in March 2016 as director of Everglades policy and coordination, previously worked as the South region director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He's also been director of the Office of Ecosystem Projects at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

O'Keefe is expected to negotiate a contract with Marks before the board's next meeting.

Antonacci will leave the district Tuesday, a day before he starts as president of the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida.

Scott deferred to the district when asked before Monday's vote if he had any favorite for the water management district's next director.

“That's their job,” Scott said Monday afternoon while in Tallahassee giving an update on Tropical Storm Emily. “I think Pete will do a good job over at EFI.”