When conservative Republicans rule the Legislature, environmentalists don’t get to celebrate many victories. But it was a different story Thursday when a House committee voted unanimously to approve “Legacy Florida.”
Not only is it not nice to mess with Mother Nature, it’s expensive. The Army Corps of Engineers didn’t consider that in 1928 when it surrounded Lake Okeechobee with a massive earthen dike.
But it’s a lesson lawmakers can’t ignore today as they face a withering Everglades south of the dike, and a torrent of polluted runoff in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers to the east and west.
Their response is “Legacy Florida.” The $200 million spending plan is sponsored by Republican Representative Gayle Harrell of Stuart. It cleared the House Agriculture and Environmental Preservation Appropriations Subcommittee on its first stop today.
“This bill is really a major step forward, not only in restoring the Everglades, but in securing an adequate, and secure water system for all of South Florida.”
The money will pay for massive plumbing projects designed to mimic a natural sheet flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee south to the fabled “River of Grass.”
Anna Upton, an attorney for the Everglades Foundation, says Legacy Florida will also let Washington know that Florida is committed to paying its share of a $14 billion, state-federal restoration plan that began in 2000.
“It is the largest eco-system restoration project in the world and all eyes are upon us. And I know the will is there. The people want this done. You guys want this done. And this bill will give us the means to get it done," Upton said.
The bill sets aside a quarter of the funds generated by Amendment 1, an environmental mandate voters approved in 2014. Some environmental groups are in court challenging the way the Legislature doled out Amendment 1 dollars last year.
Some of the spending went for salaries and other expenses for agencies.
But Legacy Florida is a different story, says Eric Draper. Draper is executive director of Audubon of Florida and a principle author of the amendment.
“This is right in alignment with what we were thinking about when we put the Everglades into the Amendment 1 language," he said.
Deborah Keller, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, says any investment in the Everglades pays for itself many times over. The Everglades keeps South Florida’s environment healthy and that keeps tourists coming, Keller says.
“It is something that the world cares about. Look at the visitation that comes into that are. Look at the species that are there. Look at the people that enjoy the fishing and the recreational areas, even as far down into the Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.”
The bill is a priority for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. Its chances are just as good in the Senate, where its sponsored by Republican Joe Negron, the next Senate president.
*EDITORS PLEASE NOTE: The original photo on this story featured work by Paul Marcellini.