Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Opinion

Column: Congress should find money to support estuaries in Tampa Bay, Florida

As a Floridian, I know we are blessed by natural wonders like the Everglades and our world-class estuaries. But in recent decades, their ecological health has been threatened by pollution, hazardous waste and challenges like stormwater runoff that come with a growing population. That’s why it’s so concerning that the federal government is on the verge of ending long-standing partnerships that work to keep these treasures safe and productive — and that protect our health and prosperity.

The Trump administration’s budget would eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program, which preserves and cleans up vulnerable coastal watersheds where Floridians live, work, swim and fish.

Estuaries are where fresh water from streams and rivers mixes with ocean salt water. When they are healthy, our estuaries support thousands of jobs and millions of families. They defend against rising sea levels, support strong real estate values and preserve wildlife habitat.

The U.S. House recently passed two amendments I introduced in the minibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 for the Interior Department. One increases funding for the National Estuary Program by $468,000 and the other provides $500,000 to combat invasive species through the National Wildlife Refuge System program. In Central Florida’s Lake Hatchineha, more than 2.4 million acres of the Refuge System were impacted by invasive plants as of 2013.

Moreover, during the last five years the EPA has provided almost $12 million — and thereby triggered almost $8 million more in state and local matching funds — to support estuaries in Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay, Charlotte Harbor and the Indian River Lagoon, as well as the St. Johns River Water Management District.

This help is sorely needed.

Estuaries like the Indian River Lagoon have suffered from years of pollution from sewage plants, septic tanks, fertilizer and stormwater. Brown algae frequently covers the lagoon’s surface, impeding sunlight and exhausting oxygen, annihilating critical seagrasses and sparking mass deaths of fish, dolphins and manatees.

A fully funded EPA is critical to preventing the further poisoning of our estuaries and to restoring them. In Sarasota Bay, EPA funds helped cut fish-threatening nitrogen levels by 64 percent and helped purify waters by increasing seagrass coverage by 55 percent. The EPA also helped protect and clean up thousands of acres of mangrove forests and salt marshes around Tampa Bay that check hurricane damage and defend against rising sea levels.

Additionally, President Donald Trump and many of his allies in Congress are trying to eliminate a hugely important program that has helped the Everglades grow cleaner and more attractive — the EPA’s South Florida Geographic Initiative.

Florida’s astonishing Everglades — 18,000 square miles of freshwater ponds, sawgrass marshes, forests and prairie lands — is the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Its well-being is critical to a healthy and prosperous Florida, in part because the Everglades provides drinking water for millions of Central and South Floridians.

And because the Everglades is one of the greatest places on Earth to visit, it attracts more than a million visitors each year who create more than $100 million annually in economic benefits and support more than 1,400 jobs. This precious ecosystem also supports a staggering number of plants and animals, many of them threatened or endangered.

Eliminating the South Florida Geographic Initiative would be a huge step backward for our state.

For 25 years, the South Florida Geographic Initiative has made Florida’s water cleaner by monitoring the seagrass, coral and water quality in the Florida Keys. Its monitoring also helps ensure that the work of the historic Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan can be assessed and improved.

The initiative provides critical monitoring of potentially hazardous substances. It has also strengthened the Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project, which analyzes growing threats to Florida’s coral reefs, including bleaching and diseases that have devastated massive amounts of coral.

Next year’s funding levels for the EPA, its National Estuary Program and the South Florida Geographic Initiative will soon be decided — perhaps in a back room in Washington. But protecting the health of Florida’s children and families, and our critical tourist sector, is not a partisan issue.

As we look forward to the Dec. 8 funding deadline, I will do anything I can to restore these funds and defend the EPA budget. In the House, I voted against budget cuts to the EPA and urge my Senate colleagues, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, to do the same. Finally, we need Gov. Rick Scott to use his influence with the Trump administration to protect Florida’s estuaries and waterways. Let’s come together to protect the Florida we love.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, represents U.S. House District 9 that covers parts of Orange and Polk counties and all of Osceola County.

Comments
Editorial: Trump should demand Saudis account for journalist

Editorial: Trump should demand Saudis account for journalist

Twenty-seven journalists have been murdered so far this year just for doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That number doesn’t even include Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who hasn’t been ...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

The Florida Supreme Court reached the right conclusion by ruling that the next governor has the authority to appoint three new justices to the court rather than departing Gov. Rick Scott. That is practical and reasonable, and it reflects the will of ...
Published: 10/16/18
Updated: 10/17/18
Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wants voters to believe he is different than his Republican colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump. The Palm Harbor Republican says he pays more attention to local issues than to the president, claims he doesnȁ...
Published: 10/15/18
Updated: 10/16/18
Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

The Hillsborough County school tax on the Nov. 6 ballot is a smart, necessary investment in the nation's eighth-largest school system. The 10-year, half-penny sales tax would create stronger, safer schools and a healthier learning environment for mor...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/16/18
Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

A proposal that goes to the three-county utility Tampa Bay Water on Monday could benefit residents, the economy and the environment across the region. The utility's governing board will consider a proposal by the city of Tampa to redirect highly trea...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/15/18
Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

The Tampa Bay Rays’ purchase of the Rowdies soccer team adds some stability to the region’s roster of professional sports franchises. It also guarantees that the Rowdies, who have amassed an enthusiastic fan base in a short time, will k...
Published: 10/12/18
Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

When the sun rose Wednesday, Mexico Beach was a sleepy town of 1,200 people on Florida's northern Gulf coast. By sundown, it was gone. The pictures show the heartbreaking devastation left by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle. Entire neighbor...
Published: 10/12/18
Shortsighted opposition to TECO

Shortsighted opposition to TECO

The destruction from Hurricane Michael is only the latest reminder of Florida's growing vulnerability to extreme weather, rising sea levels and other impacts of a warming climate. But the Sierra Club's opposition to Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to retr...
Published: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Florida sheriffs have long hand-plucked their successors from within the ranks. While he is a product of this tradition, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is uniquely qualified to be elected on his own merits.Then-Sheriff David Gee surprise...
Published: 10/11/18
Updated: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

One justice on the Florida Supreme Court faces a merit retention vote in November, essentially an up-or-down vote of confidence allowing him to remain on the bench. Merit retention votes occur at least one year after the justice’s initial appo...
Published: 10/11/18