TALLAHASSEE — Money set aside annually for the restoration of the Everglades and other waterways should also help end the use of septic tanks, a former House speaker suggested Monday as a panel considered potential environmental policies for Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis.
Former Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the incoming governor should tap the "Legacy Florida" funding to aid conversions from septic tanks to local sewer systems in coastal areas and near lagoons and estuaries.
"At the end of the day, I think that there is a conversation to be had about a dedicated funding source that could be used for those conversions," said Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican who served as speaker from 2014 to 2016.
"Legacy Florida," created under Crisafulli's watch, sets aside up to $200 million a year from voter-approved conservation money for Everglades restoration. It also sets aside $50 million for natural springs and $5 million for Lake Apopka.
It remains to be seen if the proposal will make a final report produced by a DeSantis transition committee considering issues related to the environment, natural resources and agriculture. During its meeting Monday at Florida State University's Turnbull Conference Center, the committee focused on water issues.
Everglades restoration and the need to make the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more amenable to Florida's desires on water projects dominated the discussion, which also touched on water supply and maintaining natural springs.
Congressman Brian Mast, a Palm City Republican who chairs the committee, said two additional meetings will be held before the end of the month, with recommendations presented to DeSantis before his Jan. 8 inauguration.
DeSantis successfully used his opposition to Big Sugar — refusing to directly take money from sugar companies operating around Lake Okeechobee — against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in winning the Republican nomination in the Aug. 28 gubernatorial primary. He then went on to beat Democrat Andrew Gillum in the general election.
Mast, who served with DeSantis in Congress, said after the meeting he expects the governor-elect to "reweigh the scales" when it comes to Big Sugar's influence in Florida.
The topic is expected to come up when the committee meets Dec. 28, when the focus will be on agriculture, Mast said.
The committee will also meet Dec. 17, with topics expected to include ecosystems, species and natural resources.
A big part of the discussion Monday touched on the need for the federal government to keep up its end of paying for the completion of projects.
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg suggested DeSantis push for the federal government to create its own "Legacy Florida."
"In order for the Army Corps to be a credible partner in this particular effort, they need a sustained amount of funding each year," Eikenberg said.
In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced $514.2 million was in place to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is basically a 30-foot-high earthen structure that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.
The repairs are considered an essential step in allowing the lake to hold more water, which would reduce the need for discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries to the east and west. Residents on both coasts blame polluted water releases from the lake for what has become an annual summer outbreak of toxic algae blooms in the rivers.
The money, combined with $100 million from the state over the past two years, is expected to shave the dike-repair completion timeline from 2025 to 2022.
However, the dike repair money was part of $3.348 billion in a one-time federal disaster-recovery allocation to the Army Corps' Jacksonville office to reduce flooding risks in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Mast said part of any state-federal conversation must include the water levels of the lake. The Army Corps has maintained the need to limit the levels to reduce the chance of a major breach of the dike.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Bo Rivard said the committee should implore DeSantis to set up meetings with outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, who will join the U.S. Senate in January, President Donald Trump and the Army Corps to create "the urgency at the federal level that we all have at the state level" on matters such as completing the dike repairs.
"I think we need to really get the attention of the Army Corps to get some real time frames in place," Rivard said. "This is an urgent situation. It's not going to happen overnight. But if we can improve from 10 years to four years, then that's good."
While running for governor, DeSantis highlighted his "unique relationship" with Trump while offering a number of general plans for his environmental platform.
DeSantis vowed to oppose oil drilling off the state's coasts; push lawmakers to ban fracking; reestablish a task force on red-tide outbreaks; and back Everglades-related issues such as completing a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
Crisafulli said using the "Legacy Florida" money for septic-tank conversions should satisfy the courts, where a battle has been playing out about whether lawmakers improperly used from the 2014 voter-approved Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative. A Leon County circuit judge ruled lawmakers improperly diverted portions of the money to such expenses as staffing, though the case has been appealed.
However, getting support for septic-to-sewer conversions has been a difficult issue for state lawmakers for nearly a decade.
In July 2016, Scott got immediate pushback after a budget proposal to reduce the use of septic systems to help combat the swirling green algae coating Treasure Coast waterways at the time.
Scott's idea was a voluntary program that would encourage residents on septic systems to connect to sewer systems to "curb pollution that is currently entering into these water bodies."
The proposal would have required a 50-50 local government match for money to become available for construction of wastewater systems or to help property owners shift to sewers.
By making the replacement program voluntary, Scott wanted to avoid the type of controversy that arose when a 2010 law required property owners to pay for inspections on 2.6 million septic tanks in the state every five years. That law was repealed two years later under Scott.