Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed a bill known as “Legacy Florida” that opens a tap of cash to help restore the Everglades, the state’s natural springs and Lake Apopka.
The measure (HB 989), which was a priority of legislative leaders and had the support of conservationists, could annually set aside more than $250 million for restoration work. The money will come from funds that voters designated in 2014 to manage and preserve state lands and waters.
“I want to thank the Florida Legislature for fulfilling the promise I made to create a dedicated source of funding to restore the Florida Everglades,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
The release from Scott’s office also noted that the governor will hold ceremonial bill-signings across the state in the coming weeks.
“The Legacy Florida program will allow us to provide clean water to Florida’s growing population and will aid us in completing the decades-long restoration of the River of Grass,” House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, said in a statement.
The money for the work will come from the state’s land-acquisition trust fund, which is used to carry out a 2014 constitutional amendment that requires a portion of documentary-stamp taxes to be set aside for land and water buying and preservation.
Conservationists considered the Legacy Florida measure their biggest accomplishment of the 2016 legislative session and hope that lawmakers will continue to carve out money from the voter-backed amendment for other priorities.
“I like the idea of earmarking. If we could just get a generous earmark for land conservation, then we will have finally achieved exactly what the voters wanted,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. “But the voters certainly wanted the Everglades. That was in the first line of the amendment.”
The funding doesn’t address issues such as water problems in Northwest Florida’s Apalachicola Bay or in the northern Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, where “brown tide” problems have resulted in thousands of fish dying. But it is expected to help areas such as the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that have been harmed by polluted water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
Incoming Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who sponsored the Senate version of the Legacy Florida bill, said the measure “will bring much needed relief to our community and others impacted by water releases from Lake Okeechobee.”
The Everglades work is expected to draw more water from Lake Okeechobee to the south, away from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
In February, Scott signed an executive order that declared a state of emergency for counties — Martin, St. Lucie and Lee — impacted by discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
State Affairs Chairman Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, and Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, sponsored the bill in the House.
Under the Legacy Florida plan, the state will designate up to $200 million a year to the Everglades, $50 million annually to the springs and $5 million a year to Lake Apopka, which environmentalists consider the state’s original polluted lake.
Under the bill, the Everglades and Lake Apopka funding will run until the 2025-2026 fiscal year. No end date has been attached to the springs funding.
The measure was the last bill approved before the session ended March 11, getting near-unanimous support.
The House initially sought to limit Legacy Florida to the Everglades, where projects have already been identified through the Central Everglades Planning Project, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program.
But some key senators have long pushed for springs projects. Negron has said he expects the Department of Environmental Protection to provide lawmakers with a ranking of springs projects next year.