Big Sugar and environmental advocates alike Tuesday celebrated Gov. Rick Scott's signing of Everglades legislation aimed at getting more pollution-fighting help to Florida's famed River of Grass.
The governor came to the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center west of West Palm Beach Tuesday to sign the legislation that supporters say signals a renewed effort at overcoming years of delays and setbacks over Florida's failure to meet federal water quality standards in the Everglades.
The legislation helps pay for part of Scott's $880 million plan for Everglades water pollution cleanup by extending a $25-an-acre tax on sugar cane and other agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee. The tax goes toward cleaning up stormwater pollution that washes off farmland and into the Everglades.
The legislation also calls for the state to pay $32 million a year for the next 10 years for Everglades water quality improvements.
"This is a big day for Florida. This is a big day for the environment. It's a big day for the Everglades," Scott said. "This wasn't easy to get done."
Yet, state officials and environmental advocates have gathered before to celebrate past Everglades restoration plans that have yet to accomplish the long-sought goals of improving the quantity and the quality of stormwater that once flowed freely from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay -- before development and agriculture got in the way.
The new legislation is a good step, but more must be accomplished to save the Everglades, according to Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.
That includes ensuring that the Florida Legislature for the next decade lives up to its commitment to deliver at least $32 million a year for the water quality plan, Draper said.
Sugar cane growers and other agriculture should also be required to do more to clean up phosphorus-laden stormwater that washes off their fields, he said.
"We are not done yet," Draper said.
Phosphorus, found in fertilizer, animal waste and the natural decay of soil, washes off agricultural land and urban areas and drains into the Everglades with damaging environmental effects.
In a move aimed at resolving two decades of federal litigation over Everglades water quality, Scott since 2011 has pushed for a revamped $880 million stormwater cleanup plan.
Scott's proposal calls for building nearly 7,000 acres of additional stormwater treatment areas to go along with more than 50,000 acres of manmade filter marshes already used to absorb phosphorus from stormwater headed to the Everglades.
In addition, reservoirs called "flow equalization basins" would be built nearby to hold water for the treatment areas.
To help pay for the $880 million plan, lawmakers this spring approved changes to the Everglades Forever Act that extend taxes on agriculture. The $25-per-acre tax on growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area would remain until 2026, 10 years beyond when the old version was due for a reduction.
Between 2027 and 2035, the tax declines from $20 to $15, and then in 2036 it holds at $10 per acre.
Revenue from the extended agricultural tax supplements the money from property taxpayers to fund the Everglades water quality plan.
Environmental groups succeeded in scrapping earlier sugar-backed versions of the legislation that they argued could have capped Big Sugar's Everglades cleanup requirements and lessened the opportunity to challenge water permits for polluting farms.
The health of the Everglades affects tourism and drinking water supplies, in addition to animal habitat, the governor said.
"Over many decades, water quality problems have plagued this treasure and it deserves greater attention from us," Scott said.
Big Sugar, environmental advocates and state lawmakers were among the more than two dozen supporters who gathered at Pine Jog Tuesday for the governor's bill signing.
"This is a tremendous victory for the Everglades, and for Florida," U.S. Sugar Corp. Senior Vice President Robert Coker said in a statement released after the bill signing. "Collaboration and restoration have triumphed over endless and expensive litigation."
While Audubon and the Everglades Foundation supported the compromise legislation, other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Everglades, contend it doesn't require agriculture to pay enough to clean up pollutants flowing off farmland.
The legislation "protects Big Sugar at the expense of the taxpayers," said Albert Slap, of Friends of the Everglades.
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