Senators Trim 'Legacy' Money For Everglades, Springs
Senators have reduced the amounts of proposed funding in a bill that seeks to pay for Everglades and springs-restoration projects over the next decade, as lawmakers continue to discuss how to spread voter-approved conservation money.
The Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday backed an amended proposal (SB 1168) known as "Legacy Florida" to annually set aside at least $140 million a year for the Everglades, $50 million for springs, $5 million to clean up Lake Apopka and $5 million to help restore Kings Bay or Crystal River.
Bill sponsor Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who is slated to become Senate president in November, said the primary focus is to get a recurring funding source approved. However, he remained optimistic that in the next couple of days the funding levels can be boosted back to an earlier proposal of $200 million a year for the Everglades and $75 million for the springs.
"This is the number one issue on the Treasure Coast," Negron said after the meeting. "You have a situation where people email me and text me photographs of the water, signs telling their kids not to go in the water. It really is a crisis."
On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency for counties impacted by the ongoing discharge of polluted freshwater from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Negron wasn't alone among senators expressing a desire to "correct" the Everglades and springs funding levels as budget talks continue.
"We look at this funding level here as being a minimum," said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican and backer of the Lake Apopka cleanup.
Lake Apopka and Crystal River were added to the bill on Monday.
The House version of the proposal (HB 989), which is expected to be heard on the House floor Tuesday, maintains a $200 million proposal for the Everglades, but doesn't include any other water bodies.
House co-sponsor Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said Monday he'd like to keep the House measure the way it was proposed.
"The real challenge is the dichotomy between those two (the Everglades and springs) issues," Caldwell said. "With the Everglades … we know what projects we would be funding with this money. The other issues are much more amorphous. Lake Apopka is a little bit more direct, but again I'm also worried about becoming overly parochial with the funds."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has increased water releases to ease pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake. The pressure stems from a buildup of water caused by recent heavy rains. The corps has approved Scott's request to divert some water from the lake south into the Everglades.
"To me one of the strongest points of the bill is that it provides a preference for projects that reduce the need for discharges east and west," Negron said.
The money for Negron's bill would come from the state's land-acquisition trust fund, which is being used to carry out a 2014 constitutional amendment that requires a portion of documentary-stamp taxes be set aside for land and water conservation efforts.
Under Negron's bill, 25 percent or $140 million a year, whichever is lower, would go from the land-acquisition trust fund to Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects.
Money would be broken down between different Everglades-related programs and projects. The measure also would require the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District to give preference to Everglades restoration projects that reduce discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District would direct money for the restoration of Kings Bay or Crystal River. The St. Johns River Water Management District would oversee the money for Lake Apopka.