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Florida plans $850 million in Everglades restoration projects in next year

By Anthony Man and Abigail Hasebroock, Anthony Man and Abigail Hasebroock, South Florida Sun Sentinel
Published: April 29, 2024, 6:00am

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida officials and environmental advocates on Monday touted major progress toward Everglades restoration, which has been advanced by dozens of state-funded projects.

The state has pumped billions of dollars into the effort, as the gusher of tax money flowing into state government in recent years has helped fund a flow of money toward restoration work. And more is coming, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday at an appearance in West Palm Beach.

When he acts on the state budget, DeSantis said he would approve the Legislature’s appropriation of $1.5 billion for “really meaningful” Everglades restoration and water-quality improvements.

That includes about $850 million for Everglades restoration projects, including $614 million to support the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

Also included is $100 million for the second phase of the C-51 Reservoir, which will support the water needs of Palm Beach and Broward counties while also reducing freshwater discharges to the Lake Worth Lagoon.

“My view is that we as Floridians, as Americans, we want to utilize natural resources. We want to enjoy natural resources. It’s great that people take annual trips to come to Florida to fish or go boating or to enjoy our beaches,” DeSantis said. “I’m not somebody who thinks that we should all live with no electricity in some hut somewhere. … We don’t want to waste resources. We don’t want to rob future generations of that same enjoyment that we’re having.”

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation — noting that the announcement came on Earth Day — said the Everglades restoration work is essential to the lives of people in the region and the future of the planet.

For centuries, water flowed from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades to Biscayne Bay, something that was disrupted by massive development. South Florida’s current water control system was originally designed to dry out land for cities and farms.

Now, when water — filled with nutrients from fertilizer and septic systems — is discharged from Lake Okeechobee toward the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean it has fueled algae blooms that at times have killed fish, fouled beaches and driven away tourists.

And without the natural flow, it impeded replenishment of the Biscayne aquifer, which Eikenberg said is the source of drinking water for millions of people in South Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

In the last five years, DeSantis said, there has been a “huge, huge” increase in the flow of water south from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades to Biscayne Bay.

Eikenberg said the infusion of state cash in recent years has gone to “massive infrastructure projects that are now coming online.”

Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, said reservoirs east and west of Lake Okeechobee would be completed and online next year, which would help protect the St. Lucie Estuary and the Caloosahatchee Estuary.

Eikenberg praised DeSantis for supporting large increases in Everglades restoration funding since he became governor in 2019.

He said he went to Tallahassee in 2011 to ask then-Gov. Rick Scott to support doubling Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan funding from $35 million to $70 million. Now, he said, the state in the coming fiscal year would devote more than $600 million to the effort.

“What a magnificent journey,” Eikenberg said, describing efforts that began more than 40 years ago when then Gov. Bob Graham outlined the Save Our Everglades Initiative were advanced 20 years later when then-Gov. Jeb Bush unveiled the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

State. Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, R-Highland Beach, who attended the event in West Palm Beach, said water “is our identity and our economy.”

“People aren’t going to want to live here, move here, work here … if we don’t have this filtration system that the Everglades provides.”

Securing funding is an obstacle to complete restoration, she said, but it’s essential to push for to avoid irreversible damage.

Ron Bergeron, the Everglades advocate, developer and DeSantis appointee to the board that runs the South Florida Water Management District, took DeSantis on an airboat tour of the Everglades before he was elected.

Bergeron likened the River of Grass to an emergency room patient. Years of drainage for agriculture and development left it in critical condition, but with more funds coming in, progress on current and future projects can move at a more rapid pace, he said.

“Re-establishing clean water, the most important resource on the planet, will preserve a quality of life for future generations,” Bergeron said.

DeSantis’ host

DeSantis also was praised by Kate Arrizza, president and CEO of the Cox Science Center and Aquarium, which hosted the governor for his announcement on Monday.

“I would like to thank the governor and his staff for always supporting the mission of the science center, which is to open every mind to science,” she said.

Arrizza said one reason the center is thriving today is because it “was able to stay open during the pandemic and do it safely.”

A hallmark of DeSantis’ term was his rapid moves to reopen Florida, even as some medical experts and other state officials advocated a more cautious approach.

Arrizza said the center is about to break ground “on an entirely new science center that will serve over 1 million visitors annually, and we will become the number one ticketed attraction here in Palm Beach County. We’re excited families and tourists will come from all over the state to learn more about science and how to keep Florida’s natural resources protected.”

The groundbreaking is set for May. 1.

During Monday’s event, DeSantis praised donors Howard and Wendy Cox, for whom the museum is now named. It was formerly known as the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium.

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Seeking Rents, an investigative newsletter that focuses on the way business influences public policy in Florida, reported last year that DeSantis approved $10 million in a previous state budget for the museum.

Seeking Rents said “part of the reason may be that a key Science Center booster is also a big DeSantis donor who records show personally lobbied the governor to support the project — and who had just given DeSantis (campaign efforts) another $10,000.”

“The Cox project offers a case study in how earmarks often get funded in Tallahassee, where people and organizations from around the state first lobby lawmakers to give them money — and then lobby the governor to let them keep it,” Seeking Rents reported.