By David Fleshler

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday appointed a prominent biologist as the state's first chief science officer, a new position the governor created as part of his focus on the environment.

Thomas Frazer, director of the University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment and former acting director of the UF Water Institute, will take the job in the state Department of Environmental Protection. His initial focus will be water, particularly the algae blooms that have plagued parts of the state's Gulf and Atlantic coasts, affected fishing, swimming, tourism and wildlife.

"Obviously as many of you know, we have had persistent water problems, and I've been very clear that the time for us to address this is now," the governor said at a news conference at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach. "We have taken action. We're going to take more today."

Frazer said he understood that addressing the water problems would be his priority.

"Our water-dominated environment is inextricably linked to the health and happiness of all Floridians and the state's economic well-being," he said. "In fact, the legacy of our leadership will rest squarely on an ability to ensure the water resources in this state are restored, protected and conserved to meet the needs of current and future generations."

The governor's predecessor, Rick Scott, had been criticized for failing to address climate change and banning the phrase from state government. Asked whether he thought human-caused climate change was a threat to Florida, DeSantis said he considered sea-level rise a threat but that the climate issue had been "politicized."

"I think you look at what we can do as a state government to protect the resources and the environment that Floridians enjoy, and I think one of the issues that I don't think you can deny is the sea level rise that has plagued parts of our state, that's potentially a threat to a lot of parts of our state," he said.

"This idea of quote climate change has become politicized," the governor said. "My environmental policy is just to do things that benefit Floridians. And the idea that you're signing up for some type of agenda -- I don't want to use, send a signal that that's what I'm doing because I'm not doing that. This is what we're going to do. We're going to do what works."

In an interview, the governor's new science officer said the head of his department, Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, took climate change seriously and so did he.

"The secretary is clearly on the record that climate change is real and that humans are responsible for it, and my view is consistent with that," he said. "I feel comfortable, after talking with Noah, that we'll have the freedom to talk and discuss science in an open, collegial manner like you would do anywhere, so I feel really good about that."

Initial reaction to the announcement was favorable.

"Science is back in the state of Florida," said Kimberly Mitchell, executive director of Everglades Trust, who attended the news conference. "Science is back with a vengeance."

(c)2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)