Water protection and restoration projects, including the fight against red tide and the continued cleanup of the Everglades, will account for $625 million of a proposed budget that Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will roll out Friday for state lawmakers to consider.
DeSantis on Tuesday outlined part of his environmental budget proposal during an appearance at Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center in Naples. He also named Chauncey Goss and Ron Bergeron to the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.
DeSantis earlier this month announced plans to pump $2.5 billion over the next four years into water-resource projects — a $1 billion increase from the past four years.
“I think it’s something that Floridians from all walks of lives and political persuasions think needs to be done,” DeSantis said.
The proposal introduced Tuesday did not address the Florida Forever land-preservation program or coastal protections.
“There will more environmental budget items that we will roll out. This is just one piece of that,” DeSantis said. “All in all, I think we’re on the right track.”
DeSantis’ budget proposal will be a starting point for lawmakers, who will negotiate a 2019-2020 spending plan during the legislative session that starts March 5. The agreed-upon budget will take effect with the July 1 start of the fiscal year.
The governor, who took office Jan. 8, said his overall budget will feature no tax increases and include a surplus of about $1.5 billion, up from $1 billion as a brace against future hurricanes and the lack of a timeline on federal reimbursements. Northwest Florida, for example, is cleaning up from billions of dollars in damage from October’s Hurricane Michael.
The environmental budget pieces quickly drew praise Tuesday from conservation groups.
Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell called the proposal and an executive order issued Jan. 10 signs of “a pro-water agenda.” The executive order included a series of water-related moves.
“Water quality and quantity challenges are facing all corners of Florida, and these recommendations improve the outlook for water resources from America’s Everglades to North Florida’s springs, and the Indian River Lagoon to Apalachicola,” Wraithmell said. “Florida’s environment is the foundation of our economy. Getting the water right protects our economic future.”
Kellie Ralston, who is with the group Keep Florida Fishing and serves as Southeast fisheries policy director for the American Sportfishing Association, called the proposed funding “a substantial down payment” to speed Everglades restoration and address water quality “critical for Florida to remain the ‘Fishing Capital of the World.’ ”
The proposed environmental funding includes $360 million toward 22 projects in the Everglades.
One of the projects is an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir that has been approved by the Legislature and is intended to draw water south from Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir would receive $107 million, $43 million more than what has been annually set aside for the project.
Also included in the Everglades part of the package is $40 million from the Department of Transportation to complete raising the Tamiami Trial, which has served as a dam blocking the natural flow of the River of Grass.
The fight against toxic algae and red tide outbreaks, which have threatened coastal areas of Southeast and Southwest Florida, would get $25 million, of which $4.2 million would go to red-tide research; $1 million would go to the Department of Health to study the impact of algae; and $10.8 million would go to a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, which was created as part of DeSantis’ Jan. 10 executive order.
One of the assignments for the task force will be to look for ways to reduce pollution going into Lake Okeechobee. Polluted discharges from the lake have been blamed for toxic algae outbreaks in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Another $150 million of the proposal is for “targeted” water quality improvements, including cost-share programs with local governments. That involves efforts to hook up septic-tank users to central sewer systems.
Under the proposed budget, Florida’s natural springs are targeted for $50 million, which is the amount already set in state law.
A final $40 million would be directed toward helping communities move forward with conservation, reuse and other alternative-water supply projects.
DeSantis has also followed up on his Jan. 10 executive order by recommending the transfer of 19 positions that comprise the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Unit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to the Department of Environmental Protection.
The appointments of Goss and Bergeron came after DeSantis on Jan. 10 called for the resignations of all members of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.
The board has been under fire since voting in late November to grant Florida Crystals a lease extension for land eyed for the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir. As of Tuesday, five of the nine members appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott were still listed as serving on the panel.
Goss is a Sanibel City Council member who was once a deputy staff director for the U.S. House Budget Committee and twice ran for Congress.
Bergeron, nicknamed “Alligator” and usually seen sporting a cowboy hat, is a businessman from Fort Lauderdale who was a long-serving member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.