“I want to thank the Florida Legislature for fulfilling the promise I made to create a dedicated source of funding to restore the Florida Everglades,” Scott said in a statement.
Staff members at the Governor’s office said Scott planned to hold a number of ceremonial bill-signings over the next few weeks. They did not say if one was to be scheduled for Lee or Collier Counties despite the importance of Everglades’ restoration to SW Florida. Diversion of water through the Everglades south to Florida Bay is seen by local environmentalists as key to solving a host of water problems stemming from polluted Lake Okeechobee water releases by the Army Corps of Engineers. The water’s high phosphate loading has dramatically affected the Lee County beaches by producing or contributing to red tide, algae blooms, destruction of oyster beds and damage to estuaries vital to fish reproduction.
“The Legacy Florida program will allow us to provide clean water to Florida’s growing population and will aid us in completing the decades-long restoration of the River of Grass,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafull.
The funds for the restoration projects comes from the state’s land-acquisition trust fund, established by a 2014 constitutional amendment requiring a portion of documentary-stamp taxes to be set aside to purchase land and water assets for conservation and preservation.
Conservationists viewed the Legacy Florida passage as their most significant accomplishment in the 2016 legislative session, noting that the bill could “pave” the way to specific earmarks of money from the voter-backed amendment for other priorities.
“I like the idea of earmarking. If we could just get a generous earmark for land conservation, then we will have finally achieved exactly what the voters wanted,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. “But the voters certainly wanted the Everglades. That was in the first line of the amendment.”
While the funding doesn’t address some pressing water problems like in Northwest Florida’s Apalachicola Bay or the Indian River Lagoon, where massive fish kills related to “brown tide” have occurred. But of prime importance to Lee County, the earmarks are expected to help areas such as the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that have been harmed by polluted water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, who sponsored the Senate version of the Legacy Florida bill, said the measure “will bring much needed relief to our community and others impacted by water releases from Lake Okeechobee.”
The Everglades work is expected to draw more water from Lake Okeechobee to the south, away from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
This past In February, Scott signed an executive order that declared a state of emergency for Martin, St. Lucie and Lee counties to address the impact from discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
Despite the fact, State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, and Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, co-sponsored the bill in the House. Caldwell has been criticized by conservationists for doing “too little – too late,” and using the water crisis in SW Florida to jockey for political position. Many feel the root cause of Lee County “water woes” emanates from the State’s sugar and mining interests who have long diverted water from historical flows. Both Gov. Scott and Rep. Caldwell are frequently portrayed as sympathetic to these special interests.
And while local Environmentalists had long opposed the bill as ineffective it was still viewed as a victory. According to Politico, “the biggest opposition to the bill was diminished when language was removed that would have allowed the Florida Forever land-buying program to pay for water and sewer treatment plants and transmission lines.”
Despite acquiescence to the bill’s passage, Sierra Club Florida and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida still expressed significant concerns about the lands. As further amelioration, the two groups noted that HB 1075, also signed into law with Legacy Florida, included a section allowing state land to be given to neighboring property owners in exchange for conservation agreements on their property.
“While the bill could have been much better, it still represents a step forward for all Floridians concerned with preserving our water and land quality,” said Joseph Burroughs, an environmental activist who closely monitors water quality issues in Florida.
Locally, former Chairman of the Lee County Commission, Ray Judah also viewed the bill as incomplete and perhaps politically deceptive.
While the Legacy Florida bill may sound good on paper, there is no language pertaining to land acquisition. The Governor and state legislature have adamantly opposed buying land south of Lake Okeechobee that is critically needed to store, treat and convey water to the Everglades. Given the unscrupulous way in which Governor Scott and state legislature violated the public trust by redirecting Amendment 1 funds to balance the budget during the 2015 legislative session there is grave concern that the funds appropriated in the 2016 Legacy Florida legislation will ultimately be used for agricultural related water projects including excessive payments to landowners to store water on privately owned lands or for infrastructure such as pumps, pipes and culverts, said Judah.
The Governor and state legislature have yet to demonstrate a firm resolve to restore the Everglades and protect coastal estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida. The expenditure of Legacy Florida funds will need to be closely monitored," he added.
Under the Legacy Florida plan, the state will designate up to $200 million a year for the Everglades, $50 million annually to the Sunshine State’s natural springs and $5 million a year to Lake Apopka, considered by conservationists and environmentalists as the state’s first overly polluted lake.
The bill will provide funding for the Everglades and Lake Apopka through the 2025-2026 fiscal year. No end date is set for springs funding.
The measure was the last bill approved before the session ended March 11 and received near-unanimous support. Many thought Gov. Scott would sign the bill immediately after it was passed to coincide with Statewide Everglades festivals but still hailed the chief executives actions last week.
The House had initially tried to limit Legacy Florida to the Everglades, where projects have already been identified through the Central Everglades Planning Project, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program.
But last minute lobbying by several key central and northern senators who have long pushed for spring’s projects, widened the scope of the bill. Negron told reporters he “expects the Department of Environmental Protection to provide legislators with a ranking for springs projects by early next year.”
David Guest, an attorney for Earth Justice, told the Sun Bay that Legacy Florida is nothing more than an "accounting gimmick."
Out of the original $800 million dollars taxpayers approved for land acquisition and restoration, over two-thirds of it has been spent on salaries. For example over $60 million was paid to employees of the State Forestry Division that had none of the benefits voters intended," said the affable and highly knowledgeable Guest.
When voters set aside the funding it was with the highest favorable numbers in State history and considered by almost anyone involved in State land and water preservation as a direct message to state lawmakers.
"It was a very clear mandate but as soon as it passed many members of the legislature started speaking against saying it was 'land hoarding."But it was always clear from the language on the ballot that Floridians wanted to acquire environmentally sensitive lands to protect public interests from those of special interests like agriculture and cattle ranching. Unfortunately while those interests are only a tiny part of Florida's population they are incredibly organized and adept at lobbying so they can legally keep using more than their share of public resources," elaborated Guest.
Meanwhile, SW Florida remains beset by serious water and land use issues that may be partially addressed by Legacy Florida but are likely to remain only superficially served at best.