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Lawmakers Pass 'Legacy Florida' Water Projects

Florida Everglades plants and water
Keo the Younger via Flickr

TALLAHASSEE — The House accepted a long-term Senate proposal to sink more than $250 million a year into Everglades restoration, the state's natural springs and Lake Apopka, as the Legislature concluded its regular session Friday.

The House voted 111-to-1 to support the plan — HB 989 — known as Legacy Florida, which had unanimously passed the Senate a few minutes earlier.

"This is an historic commitment by the Florida Legislature,'' said Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican whose district has been impacted by ongoing releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary.

The Everglades work is expected to draw more of the lake water to the south, away from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

"Tell my constituents at home that help is on the way," Negron added.

Under the plan, the state will designate at least $200 million a year to the Everglades, $50 million annually to the springs and $5 million a year to Lake Apopka.

"To preserve these treasures for future generations, we must continue to invest the resources necessary not only to restore the Florida Everglades, but all of Florida's natural wonders," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a release after the bill was approved.

The money would come from a 2014 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 1, which sets aside a portion of an existing real estate tax to buy and maintain land and water.

The House had initially taken a firm stance that the Legacy Florida proposal, a priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, would only involve the Everglades. Projects have already been outlined for the Everglades, something representatives said is lacking for springs.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who cosponsored the proposal in the House, lawmakers will look next year at prioritizing the springs projects.

"It came down to really taking a hard look at money and what we were doing with Amendment 1 money," Harrell said.

Helping clear the way for the House's acceptance, Harrell said, is that the proposed budget (HB 5001) for 2016-2017 includes $50 million for the springs, along with $205 million for the Everglades. Lawmakers also approved the budget Friday.

Negron said he expects the Department of Environmental Protection to provide lawmakers with a ranking of springs projects next year.

"I think the $50 million a year is a large investment for the projects that I've seen, and they may not be able to spend all of that money immediately," Negron said. "I think DEP can give a good blueprint and maybe if we need to get into some more detail we can."

The bill still needs the signature of Gov. Rick Scott. A spokeswoman said in an email Friday that the bill is under review.

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg encouraged Scott to sign the bill.

"We remain hopeful that he too will support this dedicated use of Amendment 1 funding that will allow the state to expedite planning and construction of critical restoration projects to significantly reduce damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers,” Eikenberg said in a prepared statement.