A Senate environmental committee has advanced legislation to set aside $20 million a year for projects to improve the water quality in rivers in Florida’s heartland.
The bill (SB 1400) would provide the money to the Department of Environmental Protection for designing or constructing projects that protect, restore or enhance Central Florida’s headwaters. Water in the region affects 32 counties — about half the state — said bill sponsor and Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess.
The dollars would come from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) and pay to implement the Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act, which outlines the expenditures. But environmental organizations question whether the bill would be a proper use of the fund, as part of continued fallout from a 2015 lawsuit over how the Legislature was spending the funds.
The dispute was on display Wednesday during a Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee meeting.
Dave Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club of Florida, appreciated the $20 million expenditure. But he argued provisions on drinking water supply, wastewater, stormwater and flood control, and other projects go beyond the conservation and preservation purposes laid out in a 2014 constitutional amendment.
“Our position is that the LATF is for the acquisition, restoration, management and improvement of conservation and recreation lands,” Cullen said.
Florida Conservation Voters’ Lindsay Cross said the organization recommended to Burgess that the bill limit funding from the trust fund to environmental restoration and conservation or pull from already established land acquisition lists, like Florida Forever.
“This would mean that money from the LTF could be used to protect a freshwater wetland and an upland buffer, and doing so will naturally maintain water storage and pollution reduction functions of the wetland,” Cross said.
Nearly 75% of voters approved the 2014 amendment, backed by a coalition of environmental nonprofits. Groups sued in 2015, arguing the Legislature had improperly spent the funds.
In 2018, a Leon County judge sided with the environmental groups, calling several expenditures made in 2015 and 2016 unconstitutional. But an appeals court sided with the Legislature and sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether expenditures made since the amendment kicked in were unconstitutional. Earlier this month, a county judge rejected the lawsuit, saying the funds had already been spent.
Despite pushback from environmental groups, Burgess’ bill received its second unanimous vote in the Senate committee process.
“As much as I definitely appreciate the environmental community wanting to put more protections in for the acquisition and trust fund … I’m going to support this bill, because I just feel like we can’t ignore water quality,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat.
Burgess thanked senators and environmental activists for their productive dialogue on the bill.
“I think there’s just a reasonable understanding of maybe some differing minds on how to approach the same goal,” Burgess said.
The bill next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, its final committee stop. On the House side, a companion bill (HB 603) carried by Fort Meade Republican Rep. Melony Bell awaits its first of three hearings. It is slated first for the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
Both versions of the bill would take effect on July 1, if successful.