North Florida rivers get boost in Senate bill
Additional money would be shifted to help St. Johns, Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers under Fleming Island senator’s proposal
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Some additional money would be shifted to help three North Florida rivers under a Senate proposal designed to carry out Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to spend $625 million annually on Everglades and other water projects over the next three years.
Bill sponsor Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, revised his proposal Monday as it was approved by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
The bill (SB 1878) would set aside $300 million a year for Everglades-related projects and was clarified Monday to funnel $64 million of that amount to a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area. It also would maintain $50 million a year for the state’s natural springs, an amount like the $300 million in Everglades money that is already in state law.
Bradley’s proposal initially called for spending $15 million a year on projects within the watersheds of the St. Johns, Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers in North Florida. But on Monday, he upped that amount to a minimum of $25 million.
“Water problems are statewide,” Bradley said. “While we’ve heavily invested in projects in the Keystone Lakes and St. Johns River area over the last several years, this is something that has been important to me. And I would like that to continue beyond just the years where some of us are involved in leadership.”
Environment and Natural Resources Chairman Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said “a clear message” is sent by having the bill “looking statewide.”
However, David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said the group must oppose the proposal because the funding still leans heavily to the southern part of the state.
“Springs, the rivers are basically left where they were, and we need that to increase,” Cullen said.
In making the changes Monday, Bradley removed a proposal that would have earmarked $15 million a year for the Indian River Lagoon and $10 million a year for coral reef protection. The proposal would make them available for undesignated funds, along with water conservation, protections against algae blooms and land acquisition through the Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection programs.
Bradley’s bill would direct $10 million a year to coastline resiliency efforts and spend $4 million a year for red tide research.
Shortly after being inaugurated last year, DeSantis called for $2.5 billion in environmental funding over four years, or $625 million a year. He has called this year for putting the money in state law, rather than leaving it subject to annual budget talks -- an approach the Bradley proposal would carry out with spending through the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
The House does not have a similar bill, but the issue likely will be a topic during House and Senate budget negotiations late in the ongoing legislative session.
Legislators topped the $625 million spending mark last year. Environmentalists say money is available for the projects because of a 2014 constitutional amendment that directed one-third of a real-estate tax toward land and water conservation.
Lawmakers in past years designated part of that money to go to aid Everglades and Lake Okeechobee restoration efforts, clean up springs and help Lake Apopka. But a lawsuit also is ongoing over legislative decisions to use some of the voter-approved money to cover state agency costs, including salaries and equipment.
In budget proposals released last week for the upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year, the House proposed $646.8 million for the Everglades and other water projects, while the Senate has proposed spending $643.6 million.
News Service of Florida