Long-awaited water-quality funding could ‘transform’ Florida

Clean-water advocates say 2020 water-quality legislation is too weak to keep pollution from choking waterways and springs throughout the state. They want to see it revamped so it can meet its goals. Photo: DEP report to Senate Appropriations Committee

Requesting a second year of record funding for water-quality projects, Florida’s top environmental official told state senators Thursday that dedicated annual funding could transform Florida following years of under-investment.

“We’ve got Everglades restoration on steroids now,” said Noah Valenstein, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “You’re looking in the next three to four years to see transformational change.”

Valenstein is requesting a second installment of $625 million from the Florida Legislature, as called for by Gov. Ron DeSantis toward his inaugural pledge to support $2.5 billion in funding for water-quality improvements in his term.

The money would pay for Everglades restoration, targeted water projects, natural springs, transparency and accountability, alternative water supplies, and, this year, for the first time, innovative technologies and research.

“This Legislature, this Senate, took that request, which was the highest every requested, and responded with not just a yes and ‘Yes, we believe it’s necessary to invest in protecting our environment,’ but actually almost a one-up,” Valenstein said.

Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley, a Republican from North Central Florida, said he feels optimistic for the first time.

“After a while, you almost get cynical about is this ever going to happen. But I’m seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, that’s a real light for the first time in my career here in the Senate, so that makes me happy,” Bradley said.

He said some senators were frustrated to see money needed for environmental protection diverted to other uses. Gov. Rick Scott was in office in 2014 when voters approved the Water and Land Conservation Amendment to the Florida Constitution, mandating continuous funding to buy land to protect Florida’s environment. In 2018, environmental groups won their court challenge demanding that state government comply with the will of the voters.

“One of the things that has frustrated senators over the years … is that we have these initiatives and we want to make sure there’s follow-through. And we have an important role to play in oversight of our executive branch,” Bradley said. “[We must] make sure that when we ask that things be done and that we deploy certain resources, that those things are in fact done and that the resources are in fact deployed in the ways that we intended.”

Valenstein said the governor’s support for higher funding represents “a paradigm shift” but that important policy changes are still needed to avoid compounding Florida’s environmental problems – which include blue-green algae and red tide surges, rising sea level, and degradation of the Florida Everglades.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said, praising the “amazing environmental movement in Florida.”

Environmental groups in Florida have long called for increased funding and policy changes to protect water and land, including widespread conversion to clean energy, curbing pollution at the source, and acknowledgment that climate change is real and is damaging the state.

Valenstein told senators that if the Legislature sustains financing for water-quality improvements at $625 million per year, the state’s part (but not necessarily the federal government’s part) in restoring the Everglades could be complete in 2023.