Gov. Rick Scott is beginning his second year in office with a markedly different and more helpful tone on Everglades restoration. The governor will speak tonight at the annual conference of the Everglades Coalition, by far the most high-profile event for the multitude of groups promoting the cleanup of Florida's River of Grass. Scott's appearance sends the right message in advance of the 2012 legislative session about the importance of a healthy Everglades in the state's economy and quality of life.
The coalition has presented the conference since 1986, and it has long been a place for activists, policymakers and elected officials to network and showcase their environmental credentials. Scott's participation marks a turnaround from last year, when he broke a tradition reaching back a quarter-century of a new governor speaking at the conference as one of his first major public events.
For Scott, the speech marks an opportunity to build support for the $40 million he has proposed for Everglades restoration next year. That amount is more than double what he proposed in his first budget and $10 million more than what the Legislature ultimately approved for 2011. It is critical that Florida step up even in these tough economic times to maintain the cost-sharing with Washington for the cleanup effort. Congress' authorization for $142 million next year clears the way for essential restoration of the headwaters into South Florida and the freshwater flow through the Everglades basin.
Scott's appearance is also an opportunity for representatives of the 54 local, state and national conservation organizations to have a first-hand exchange with the governor over his proposal to modify an Everglades pollution cleanup plan. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressed concern in November that Scott's plan called for "significantly smaller" cleanup marshes and that it would delay water cleanup another two years. Those are serious concerns that will need to be addressed.
Whether Scott's participation heralds a greater sensitivity to environmental issues overall remains to be seen. But he has been educated in the past year about the economic impact of restoring a basin that provides drinking water to one of every three Floridians — along with an ecosystem that supports tourism, growth, flood control and tens of thousands of jobs. The governor intends to follow up tonight's speech with a visit to another Everglades summit later this month. His new embrace of the project well serves the state. Scott should continue to show leadership to keep the restoration timetable on track — and the federal money flowing. Both sides should use the conference as an opportunity to build a new level of trust and a genuine working relationship as the legislative session kicks off next week.