TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott has trumpeted the environmental initiatives in his new budget, including money for protection of Florida’s increasingly polluted springs and a new initiative for Everglades restoration.
Some environmental advocates give Scott credit for responding to critical needs, while others say the springs money is a drop in the bucket of what’s needed and that the Everglades initiative is a result of the ongoing litigation in which the state has been found to have violated its agreement to protect the River of Grass.
“He’s certainly heard the concerns ... He is now stepping up,” said Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “The governor understands that a restored and protected Everglades is an enormous economic driver.”
Eric Draper, executive director of the Florida Audubon Society, said Scott’s proposal to spend $130 million on Everglades protection projects “is a good Everglades budget. It’s starting to get back to where we were in the best years, when we got up to $200 million in 2007.”
But David Guest, an environmental lawyer who has worked to force Florida to stop the continuing pollution of the Everglades, had a different view.
Scott’s Everglades initiative, he said, stems mainly from two motives — court orders resulting from litigation and public outcry over pollution of the Indian River Lagoon not — from a newfound devotion to the environment.
“If we didn’t bring out the cattle prod, they would still be dithering,” Guest said. “You have to look at the whole Rick Scott, the governor who has had the worst impact on protecting Florida’s waters of any governor in Florida history.”
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Bob Knight of the Florida Springs Institute called Scott’s $55 million springs initiative “baby steps” that “will not make a noticeable difference. That won’t even be a speed bump in the process of decline that’s going on right now.”
Scott’s Everglades initiative consists roughly of three parts:
♦ $30 million to create an elevated roadbed for 2.5 miles of Alligator Alley, allowing water to flow under the highway, which for decades has blocked the natural water flow of the Everglades. That adds to the one mile of bridging already in place, intended eventually to total 6.5 miles.
♦ $32 million to build cleanup facilities for agriculturally polluted water flowing from the Everglades Agricultural Area.
♦ The remainder is for reservoirs to store polluted water in Martin County and along the Caloosahatchee River, plus the final steps in restoring the natural flow of the Kissimmee River.
The reservoirs and Kissimmee restoration are linked directly to the pollution flowing into the Indian River Lagoon along the Treasure Coast, which suffered last summer from the combined effects of heavy rain, pollution in Lake Okeechobee and local development.
The level of nitrogen and phosphorus — fertilizers that stimulate algae growth in water — spiked in the lagoon.
The rain forced releases of fertilizer-laden water from the lake that ended up in the southern part of the lagoon, while heavy freshwater flows and runoff from development turned the northern part into an algae-laden soup.
The result, said Guest, was “a gigantic crisis, stinking green slime, scores or hundreds of manatees and dolphins and pelicans killed.”
In October, Scott was booed at the opening of a Bass Pro Shops in Port St. Lucie, according to news reports.
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According to a news release from the Governor’s Office, the springs initiative money will go for improving agricultural practices in use of water and fertilizer, and development of alternative water supplies and recharge projects.
Florida’s springs suffer the same problem as the Everglades and many coastal waters — excessive loads of nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff from agriculture, development and septic tanks, leading to algae blooms and death of natural vegetation that’s the base of the food chain.
Springs pollution is aggravated by reduced flows of fresh water in the springs because of overpumping of water from the aquifer that feeds them, Knight said.
The springs, famed for their clear water and abundant wildlife, have long been among the state’s top tourist attractions. But many of them are now murky, with fewer fish, and are suffering from saltwater intrusion, Knight said.
In the 1990s, he recalled, the problem gained attention statewide, resulting in the launch of the Florida Springs Initiative after a visit by former Gov. Jeb Bush to Itchetucknee Spring in 1999.
But the initiative never got much beyond planning and in 2007, it “started fading away.”
It ended in 2011, Scott’s first year in office, in the midst of preparations for restoration of Wakulla, Silver, Itchetucknee and Rainbow River springs.
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As to how much money is needed to protect springs, Knight noted that a single project to upgrade the sprayfield used to dispose of sewage treatment effluent in Tallahassee has a price tag of $220 million. The project is designed to reduce pollution of underground water.
Even those environmental advocates who praise Scott’s initiative this year say it doesn’t make up for actions earlier in his term.
In the name of expediting economic growth and development, Scott slashed the budgets of the state’s water management districts, largely responsible for enforcing anti-water pollution regulations, and dismantled the state Department of Community Affairs, responsible for state participation in growth management.
With Scott’s acquiescence, the state Legislature killed a bill aimed at protecting springs by requiring inspections of residential septic tanks.
“His policy has been to allow businesses to dump pollution into Florida waterways, letting polluting industries write regulations and getting rid of all the good people at Department of Environmental Protection,” attorney Guest said.
Draper, with Florida Audubon, said Scott appears to be feeling the heat from that record and is responding.
“I think the governor wants to be seen as positive toward the environment, and recognizes that early in his term, he made some mistakes that gave people the impression he’s not,” Draper said.
“From his staff, I heard they were concerned about losing the votes of environmental voters, including Republicans.
“They don’t tend to be concerned about climate change or alternative energy, but they do care about the Everglades, water and parks.”