Gov. Rick Scott reiterated his support for the River of Grass on Wednesday, with an announcement to the Florida Cabinet that he will include $130 million for Everglades and South Florida waterway projects in his 2014-15 budget proposal to be released next week.
That amount includes the more than $100 million in water storage and restoration projects that he vowed to pay for during last summer’s water crisis in the St. Lucie Estuary.
“We’ve made a lot of progress on the Everglades,” Scott said Wednesday at a meeting of the Cabinet in Kissimmee.
Most of the previously announced projects — totalling $102 million — came as a result of the environmental crisis triggered by last summer’s record-setting rains. Fear of flooding and a breach in the dike around Lake Okeechobee prompted the release of billions of gallons of freshwater from the lake water into brackish estuaries.
Scott is expected to unveil his full, election-year budget proposal to the Legislature next week. Among the projects described Wednesday:
- $40 million to construct a wetland that will store water and reduce harmful releases of water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary. The cost of building the wetland, called the C-44 Project, was to be split with the Army Corps of Engineers. Rather than waiting for the Corps to come up with its portion of the cost, Scott announced on Aug. 28 that Florida will pay the remaining $40 million.
- $30 million to speed up completion of the Tamiami Trail bridge project, which will convert a 2.6-mile stretch of the road into a bridge so water can flow into the Everglades National Park. The road now blocks water, which caused flooding that left animals stranded on tree islands. The unhealthy high-water levels also damage vegetation and other wildlife.
- $32 million committed as a result of a law signed by Scott in May that assures annual funding for his $880 million long-term Everglades restoration plan.
Scott will also ask that $25 million be allocated to the South Florida Water Management District to finish restoration of the Kissimmee River and $3 million to the state Department of Agriculture to promote farming practices that reduce pollution.
Scott’s $130 million proposal would sharply increase the $70 million that the state is currently spending on restoring the Everglades.
While environmental activists who attended the Cabinet meeting acknowledge the total Scott announced Wednesday isn’t any more than what he promised last summer, they applauded it for being a “considerable increase” over current spending.
“You have to look at the totality: $130 million is $60 million more than we are spending right now,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, agreed: “We’re seeing a number over $100 million and we haven’t seen that in years.”
Scott’s Everglades presentation came a day after he unveiled plans to increase spending on restoring Florida’s springs. Scott said he wants to spend $55 million on the work this year, up from $10 million currently.
More good news for the Everglades was announced at the Cabinet meeting when Dan Kimball, supervisor of Everglades National Park, said the federal government will match Florida’s three-year, $30-million-a-year funding commitment for the $170 million-$210 million Tamiami Trail bridge project out of the park service road fund.
As a first-year governor in 2011, Scott, a Republican, dramatically cut property taxes going to water management districts – forcing wholesale layoffs and limiting state oversight. The same year, he signed into law legislation that eliminated most of the state’s 25-year-old growth management laws.
Now in an election year in which he expects a challenge from former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott defends his environmental record, citing the Everglades commitment as a key example.
Scott is helped in his environmental spending commitments by a budget surplus this year of about $1.1 billion. Besides the increase in spending for the water projects, he has also proposed spending increases in transportation and tourism, and pledged to reduce taxes and fees by $500 million.