Lagoon conservation proposal clears first legislative hurdle

Sen. Gayle Harrell’s proposal to tap the Florida Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the Indian River Lagoon Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan got a 4-1 reception at its first committee stop in the Florida Legislature.

“What we’re doing here with this bill is using a bill that passed the Senate and House several years ago, 2015, called Legacy Florida,” Harrell told the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources at its March 12 meeting. “This is Legacy 2.0. What we’re doing is using the same model of creating a dedicated funding source with Amendment 1 money.”

Harrell’s bill, SB 368, got criticism at the hearing. Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, said if the Florida Legislature passes and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the bill, it’ll be an erosion of voters’ intentions.

“I wish we could wholeheartedly support this bill,” she told the committee. “There are a few words in this bill that give us pause.”

Specifically, among the projects now covered in the bill are some septic-to-sewer conversions. Moncrief said there are natural and engineered solutions to reducing algae-feeding nutrient pollution in the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon. Natural solutions are primarily land acquisition to reduce development. Engineered solutions are, for example, stormwater treatment facilities and getting rid of septic tanks along the lagoon and its contributing waterways.

“Wastewater treatment, the septic problem we have, this is a multibillion-dollar problem that the water and land amendment in 2014 was simply not intended to solve,” said Moncrief.

Voters passed the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, Amendment 1, in 2014 with 75 percent voting yes. The amendment to the Florida Constitution dedicated a third of net revenue from documentary stamp taxes (often called doc stamps) on land transitions to “acquire, restore, improve and manage conservations lands including wetlands and forests.”

In 2015, then Gov. Rick Scott – now a U.S. senator – announced limiting state dollars for land acquisition related to Everglades restoration projects. Harrell, who was then serving in the Florida House or Representatives, responded by introducing the Legacy Florida bill to direct some monies from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to help with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Harrell’s current bill – if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor – would dedicate $50 million or 7.6 percent of the revenues from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund a year to Indian River Lagoon conservation.

Republican Harrell’s district includes all of St. Lucie and Martin counties.

Harrell said the bill will get helpful amendments and revisions through committee and subcommittee stops, and the septic-to-sewer and other specifics could disappear by the time the bill reaches a floor vote. However, she defended, specifically, the language allowing the requested funds to be available for septic-to-sewer conversions.

“For me, when I read Amendment 1, and I read it many many times, it does not specifically preclude use of funds for septic-to-sewer conversion. It doesn’t say only acquisition of land. I believe there are many other uses for Amendment 1 money.

“I believe (septic tanks are) a major concern of the Indian River Lagoon area.”

The lagoon stretches through five counties, Martin north to Volusia. Early at the committee meeting Harrell said in addition to being “one of the most biodiverse estuaries in the country,” the lagoon is a $7.6 billion driver of economic activity. She said the proposed dedicated recurring state funding leveraged federal dollars through the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. “There are federal dollars are out there, but you’ve got to have a recurring revenue source,” Harrell said.

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