Saturday, December 16, 2017
Opinion

Column: Protecting what is precious in Florida

We are blessed to live in a state abundant in environmental riches, including more than 600 miles of beautiful beaches, over 900 freshwater springs, more than 11 million acres of wetlands and, our own national treasure, the Florida Everglades. Our waterways and natural spaces are not just objects of beauty but foundational to the health of our two ecos — Florida's ecosystem and Florida's economy.

It has been an honor to advance policies and support funding initiatives to help protect and preserve our environment. Recent reports by the Tampa Bay Times have distorted the Legislature's record on these issues, particularly the landmark Everglades bill that passed in 2013. I write to provide readers with an alternative view based on actions that can be independently verified. By doing so, it is my hope that Floridians will gain a better understanding of our record of service and commitment to protecting our state's natural resources.

For the past two years, the Legislature has increased funding for the Florida Forever program. In fiscal year 2013-14, we provided $81.8 million, representing a 90 percent increase over 2012-13. This year, we added another $57.5 million. The conservation land funds provide money for natural spring protection, military buffering, water resource protection and targeted land acquisitions.

We also made the first significant dedicated investment to restore our freshwater springs. We provided more than $40 million, along with tens of millions of local matching dollars secured by the state's Department of Environmental Protection, to help address nutrient pollution.

Over the past two years, we also provided over $148 million for local water projects. In addition, our last two budgets directed funding for beaches, including $84.8 million toward financial assistance to local governments for beach and dune restoration, beach nourishment, inlet sand bypassing, regional sediment management and other such innovative projects. We have invested $32 million toward repairs and renovations to state park facilities, $10.5 million to restore the St. Johns River Ecosystem, $4 million for water quality restoration projects in the Apalachicola Bay estuary, and more than $750,000 for oyster shelling and research to help that industry's recovery.

Finally, we have made policy decisions and invested significant state dollars to benefit the Florida Everglades. In the last two budgets, we have invested $205 million toward Everglades restoration and will provide funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Northern Everglades, and Estuaries Protection Program, including an additional $11 million for innovative nutrient reduction projects to help restore the Northern Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

It is not just funding. In 2013, the Legislature passed a historic Everglades restoration bill that was supported by every Republican and Democrat member of the House and Senate. Everglades Foundation CEO Erik Eikenberg heralded it as a bill that "provides funding for construction projects to ensure water quality standards in the Everglades are finally achieved. These projects will bring needed jobs to Florida and when completed will treat polluted water before it further destroys America's Everglades."

Also supportive of the bill was Audubon Florida. Executive director Eric Draper joined Gov. Rick Scott, legislators, farmers and other Floridians to celebrate the signing of the bill into law. Such broad and diverse support could not have happened without a singular focus on doing what is best for the state. It is significant to note that Florida would be able to realize hundreds of millions more if Washington would follow our lead and work in a bipartisan manner to fulfill their commitment to protect our River of Grass.

These focused efforts will yield measurable results to the quality and sustainability of our environment and sensitive water bodies. But our work is nowhere near done. In cooperation with Senate President-designate Andy Gardiner, we will continue our focus on strategic statewide water and land funding initiatives in the upcoming legislative sessions.

My interest in our environment is rooted in a wonderful family heritage. I was born and raised in Florida. I work the same farm that my father and his father worked. Six generations of my family before me loved this state enough to live here, work here and raise their families here. It's why I stayed in Florida to raise my family here, too. As the beneficiary of their stewardship and dedication, I am committed to help this and future generations enjoy this state in its natural splendor. Florida deserves no less.

Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, is a seventh-generation Floridian. He will serve as speaker of the House for the 2015-16 legislative sessions.

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