By John Haughey | The Center Square
House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson want to address water quality and tidal flooding issues differently than lawmakers have done so since at least 2017.
The two new leaders of the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature are tentatively proposing the state develop with its 412 cities and 67 counties a priority list of projects to mitigate rising waters that flood streets, damage homes and ruin businesses, similar to the Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) five-year work program.
At risk, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Secretary Noah Valenstein, is $145 billion in taxable property for an estimated 300,000 homes projected to be underwater by 2050 after sea levels rise by 2.5 feet.
“With 1,350 miles of coastline, relatively low elevations, and communities built largely on top of former swampland, Florida remains particularly vulnerable to the risk of flooding caused by sea level rise,” Simpson, R-Trilby, and Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, wrote in a Florida Politics op-ed. “Over the last several years, we have seen that risk grow exponentially.”
The emphasis, apparently, will shift spending away from land acquisition to protect watersheds to focus on removing septic tanks, safeguarding natural springs, building flood-mitigation infrastructure and reassessing the state’s – and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ – commitment to the 10,100-acre, $1.6 billion Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir project. The reservoir is being built to reduce discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River estuaries that spawn blue-green algae blooms.
Congress approved last summer the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, which provides authority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin work on the EAA, which was approved by state lawmakers in 2017 as a key improvement in the 40-year, $8 billion Everglades restoration plan approved by Congress in 2000.
It marked only the second time in 20 years the federal government provided its full $200 million annual commitment to Everglades restoration.
The boost in federal funding dovetails with DeSantis’ four-year, $2.5 billion state-funded Everglades restoration plan. The first two years have been approved by lawmakers, including more than $625 million in this year’s spending plan.
DeSantis wants to accelerate the EAA reservoir project to be completed in seven years rather than 10. He is expected to submit a $625 million budget request for the third year of the plan before lawmakers convene their 2021 session March 3.
Getting that money may not be a slam dunk if Simpson’s comments during the Nov. 17 organizational session and at last week's Florida Chamber of Commerce Transportation, Growth & Infrastructure Solution Summit are prognostic.
Simpson said with the pandemic punching a projected $3.4 billion to $5 billion hole in the state’s next two fiscal years, approving the EAA in 2017 was a “mistake” and the state “probably should stop building.”
An egg farmer, Simpson is among agricultural interests, including the state’s sugar industry, that favored drilling deep injection wells north of Lake Okeechobee rather than the EAA. He said the wells would produce “twice the bang for our buck” with two key two benefits.
“First of all, it doesn’t allow (runoff) to go into the lake to have to be discharged. So, that’s a positive,” Simpson said. “Number two, it allows you during drought times to be able to pull that water back out of the aquifer and use it. So, I think this year, we will spend a lot of time talking about the northern Everglades restoration.”