Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said the state remains committed to fulfilling its $2.5 billion commitment to Everglades restoration and water quality protection.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed to reach that $2.5 billion target during his first four years in office. The state is proposing more than $700 million in the upcoming budget to work toward that mark.
At Wednesday’s meeting before the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, Valenstein explained the importance of the Everglades in the state’s overall environmental plan.
“It’s critical for water supply for the bulk of Floridians. And it’s really a demonstration to the world that we can have the largest wetland restoration program in the world, protecting one of the most important natural resources in the world, right next to one of the most robust agricultural areas in the world and right next to one of the most metropolitan areas in the world,” Valenstein said.
“If we can do that here in Florida, we have the ability and the roadmap to have sustainability anywhere else in the world.”
Valenstein told the committee the state is about halfway to the $2.5 billion commitment in terms of funding. That includes about $790 million marked for Everglades restoration and nearly $240 million more for targeted water quality improvements.
Those water quality improvements include updating septic sewer systems by minimizing nutrients getting into those systems and upgrading wastewater treatment centers and stormwater management plans.
Asked for specifics, Valenstein said around 97% of funding granted during the first two years of DeSantis’ administration has been already allocated to various projects. But only around 23% has been spent so far. The Secretary said he expects spending to be increased as various reservoir construction projects pick up, which will necessitate a cash influx.
Republicans have not been in lockstep on funding priorities, however. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast and state Senate President Wilton Simpson have gone back and forth since last week about whether the state should focus on water storage projects south of Lake Okeechobee or water quality efforts north of the lake.
At the root of that debate is how best to prevent toxic algal blooms from pouring out of Lake O into other waterways. Many of the nutrients causing those blooms in the lake now come from north of the lake. But Valenstein conceded it’s not possible to eliminate those blooms entirely.
“Right now, we don’t have the choice to not have algal blooms,” Valenstein said. He told the panel that mitigation and monitoring are the priorities right now, such as through algicide or harvesting the algae.
Mast and others have also pushed for Lake Okeechobee water levels to be lowered, lessening the need to discharge water carrying that toxic algae.
High water levels could risk structural damage to the Herbert Hoover Dike in the event of flooding during a storm. Thus, the Army Corps is sometimes tasked with dumping water to lower the levels. But if those levels are low to begin with, that reduces the need for discharges.
Republican Rep. Rick Roth raised concerns with that tactic, however, arguing that low water levels can cause issues for nearby communities reliant on Lake O’s water supply. If those levels are low and a drought period hits, that supply could be depleted.
Roth pressed Valenstein to explain what the state is doing to prevent such a scenario.
“Certainly the Governor’s comments have been, ‘manage the lake in the best way possible to reduce discharges to the estuary while still meeting your legal requirements,’” Valenstein responded.
“I understand that results in anxiety, and I’d love to sit down to discuss if you think there are particular areas where you’ve seen something that does not match up with state law. But I just have not seen that.”
Democratic Rep. Anika Omphroy voiced similar concerns. She pointed to ongoing construction on the Herbert Hoover Dike, which has a target completion date of 2022. Omphroy asked Valenstein whether that fortification would allow Lake O’s water levels to remain higher, as the threat of damage to the dike would be reduced.
“The restoration of the dike doesn’t mean you hold more water in the lake at all times, right? It’s a very dynamic system,” Valenstein said. But he did say he and the Governor expect some changes from the Army Corps when that work is completed.
“If they can’t manage the lake differently after the investment that we’ve put, as a state, for Lake Okeechobee, I won’t be a happy, Secretary. Maybe that’s the shortest way to answer it,” Valenstein said. “They sure better manage the lake more dynamically after the money that we’ve put in to help restore the dike. That’s exactly what we’d expect them to do. That’s what their public comments have been.”
During the committee meeting, Valenstein also defended DeSantis for not asking to issue bonds for the Florida Forever land conservation program, as the financing method has been proposed to cover Everglades work and a new program to fight rising sea levels.
Valenstein told members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee he has been directed to show the value in Florida Forever, with DeSantis proposing next year to spend $50 million on the program — down from $100 million during the current fiscal year.
“We believe $50 million will allow us to continue a robust land-acquisition program,” Valenstein said. “The thing we focus on the most at the agency is bringing in good acquisitions, ones that tell the reason why we should have an acquisition program and the ones that add to the value of the green infrastructure we already have.”
After the meeting, Valenstein said the Governor has “repeatedly had us bring forward amazing projects to the Cabinet. He voted for those projects and expects us to continue to bring amazing projects.” DeSantis and the Cabinet must sign off on land purchases.
Pointing to an anticipated increased demand on the state’s water supply, West Palm Beach Republican Rep. Rick Roth said he was “disappointed” in the way the Governor wants to fund Florida Forever.
“We’ve spent over 25 years working on Everglades restoration. This is a long-term project. The (fight against) blue-green algae and water quality and all that,” said Roth. “I would like to just encourage the Governor’s office to think more about bonding for Florida Forever so that we can protect our water resources as we have this influx of people.”
While House leaders in the past have opposed bonding, which creates long-term debt, Roth added, “I’m hoping if we get to that point, that y’all will be supportive of bonding for Forever Florida.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.