TALLAHASSEE Florida lawmakers could increase the use voter-approved conservation money. This is after a Leon County Circuit judge rejected a challenge by environmental organizations to how the money has been spent.
Tuesday saw approval by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee for a measure (Senate Bill 1400) that would provide $20 million a year to help protect the headwaters of several waterways in Central Florida.
The bill would allow for the implementation of a 2017 law called the Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainable Act. This law was created to protect the headwaters the Alafia and Hillsborough, Kissimmee and Ocklawaha rivers in the Green Swamp and Polk County. The bill raises concerns about the future supply of water in the region, at least partially.
Critics claim that the bill could be used in a broad way, exceeding the intent of the 2014 voter-approved constitutional amendment which required the purchase and protection of sensitive lands.
Lindsay Cross, lobbyist for Florida Conservation Voters, said that there could be a preference for what we consider gray infrastructure. This includes pipes and pumps for stormwater infrastructure and wastewater infrastructure.
Wauchula Republican Sen. Ben Albritton, who chairs Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, stated the proposal’s intent is to protect and enhance the environment.
Albritton stated that we should have a conversation about finding ways to provide additional water and potable water sources for the area. I would be open to the idea of using part the $20 million for that. If you can do that, you will draw less water from the aquifer, and you will protect the aquifer in future.
Natalie Fausel, a Polk County lobbyist, stated that the money would give local governments stability when planning water projects.
Fausel stated that this allows Polk County and these cities, with their comprehensive strategy for water resources in their region to prioritize those projects.
A portion of the documentary-stamp income from real estate sales goes to the state Land Acquisition Trust Fund each fiscal year under the 2014 constitutional amendment. This fund is used to support conservation projects. August projections by state economists showed that the fund would receive $1.26 billion during the current fiscal year. $136 Million is dedicated to debt payments.
In past sessions, lawmakers allocated annual spending from this fund to include $200,000 million for Everglades protection, $64 million to build a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, $50 million for the state’s natural springs, and $5 million to Lake Apopka.
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the legislature in 2015 claiming that lawmakers improperly spent money on issues like agency expenses. Layne Smith, a Leon County Circuit Judge, rejected the lawsuit on Jan. 3. He said that the funds had already been spent.
Last week, environmental groups filed motions to reconsider the ruling.
David Cullen is a lobbyist for Sierra Club. He said Tuesday that the Heartland proposal in front of the Senate committee is an example why the lawsuit was filed.
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Cullen stated that the Heartland Protection and Sustainability Act could provide $20 million annually for these types of projects: drinking water supply, stormwater and flood control and environmental restoration and conservation. The first three, stormwater, flood control, and wastewater, don’t fit into the categories I have outlined.
Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
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