Gov. Rick Scott, who environmentalists said was reluctant to support wildlife and conservation efforts for most of his first term, will ask lawmakers to designate money for the next 20 years for Everglades restoration.
Scott on Tuesday outlined a $5 billion plan for the Everglades that would begin with $300 million in the upcoming year. The plan, which includes money for building water-retention reservoirs and maintaining the upland habitat of endangered Florida panthers, was announced as Scott prepares to release his proposed 2015-16 budget this week.
The Everglades proposal comes as lawmakers are determining how to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment that requires the state to spend money on conservation efforts for the next 20 years. The amendment, approved in November, designates 33 percent of the revenue from a type of real-estate tax.
Scott didn't support or publicly oppose the amendment, and his office didn't mention it in a news release Tuesday. But the Everglades proposal, if funded through the amendment, would require about a third or a quarter of the money.
In a statement, Scott said his Everglades proposal is to "preserve our natural treasures so Florida can continue to be a top destination for families, visitors and businesses." Lawmakers will consider the proposal this spring as they negotiate a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The proposal drew positive responses from environmental groups and from a coalition of sugar farmers who have often been criticized because of phosphorus-laden runoff that has gone into the Everglades and nearby waterways.
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg called Scott's proposal "another historic moment in Everglades restoration." Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, a lobbyist on environmental issues, said "this ensures that there will be enough money to finish restoring the Everglades."
Meanwhile, Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Florida Sugar Farmers, which is a coalition formed by Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, said in a release that "Scott's financial commitment toward real solutions for the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers should help cut through the rhetoric and begin building storage and treatment where the estuaries need it most."
Still, David Guest, the managing attorney for the environmental-advocacy law firm EarthJustice, expressed hope Scott's proposal will bring "action that will create meaningful restoration" and not "more corporate welfare for big agriculture."
"Job number one is to stop the big South Florida agricultural operations from dumping their pollution into the public's waterways," Guest said in a prepared statement. "If we can finally stop that pollution from going into the waterways that flow into the Everglades, we have a chance for meaningful environmental restoration."
Under Scott's proposal, $150 million during the upcoming budget year would go to Everglades restoration and the other $150 million would be designated for land acquisition and management that in part will protect land for Florida panthers.
Draper noted that before Scott's proposal to save panther habitat, the governor has been "pretty reluctant, historically on land acquisition as a conservation strategy."
"Frankly, wildlife has not been a focus of this governor," Draper said. "We may have found our sweet spot. At least, I'm hopeful we have."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls the Florida panther the most endangered mammal in the eastern U.S., with "only between 120-180 left, all in South Florida."
Scott traveled Tuesday to Gator Park in Miami to announce his spending proposal, where he maintained his support for restoring the Kissimmee River, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee, and building reservoirs for the C-43 and C-44 canals, which take water east and west from the lake.
"Collectively these projects will provide more than 100 billion gallons of storage to protect our estuaries from discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee," a release from the governor's office said. "The dedicated source of funding for Everglades restoration will also allow for the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District to identify and fund additional storage projects in the future — and provide the certainty that a restored Everglades will become a reality."
The proposal would continue efforts from the 2014 legislative session in which lawmakers approved $231.9 million to improve South Florida waterways and direct some water out of Lake Okeechobee to the south rather than east and west.
The 2014 funding included $60 million during the next two years to bridge a portion of the Tamiami Trail in Miami-Dade County. Lifting the road is expected to help shift the flow of water in the Everglades to the south.
The funding was the result of a select legislative committee that was initially focused on improving water quality in the St. Lucie River estuary, which in 2013 was inundated with nutrient-heavy waters released from nearby Lake Okeechobee.
Copyright News Service of Florida