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

Published Oct. 31, 2017

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.

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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.