As the 2018 Legislative Session hits its midpoint, the biggest issue, as always, is balancing the budget. In the hunt to secure funding are environmental appropriations. The policies to protect Florida’s environment are broad and the amount of money proposed to support these policies is enormous. Inevitably, projects offered to accomplish policies often become political. Some projects are desperately needed while others merely serve special interests. Hundreds of millions of dollars are requested. Meanwhile, Floridians want to know why these appropriations are important, what these huge sums of money will buy, and whether it is possible to measure their effectiveness (otherwise known as return on investment). Here are four funding priorities that will make positive impacts on the environment and can be measured to ensure a positive return on investment.
Priority One – Appropriate funding to modernize public infrastructure that is crumbling daily and spilling millions of gallons of raw sewage into the environment. These waste water delivery and treatment systems are the biggest polluters of all. Even before the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma, the Florida environment has suffered from hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage poured into it by failing sewers and waste water treatment plants. Hurricane Irma merely added to the problem. Aging and outdated systems unable to handle the capacity demanded of them in times of extreme weather must be modernized to protect our environment.
Priority Two – Appropriate funding to address mitigation of the massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee that produce harmful algae blooms. One way would be to provide state funds to accelerate the renovation of the Herbert Hoover Dike. In fact, Governor Rick Scott has already seized the initiative on this. And Senator Marco Rubio has encouraged President Trump and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to follow through on their verbal commitments to accelerate such funding. A stronger HHD could hold an additional 364,000 acre-feet of water, if needed, during a heavy rain event. Beyond that, new, recently developed, phosphorous removal technologies have demonstrated the ability to remove large amounts of phosphorous from water, thus limiting its ability to cause algae blooms. Such technologies actually remove phosphorous as opposed to moving it from one location to another (such as from Lake Okeechobee to a reservoir or a storm water treatment area).
Priority Three – Slow the continued acquisition of “conservation lands” until reasons for such acquisitions are specified and adequate recurring maintenance funding is secured. Florida already has 30 percent of its land in conservation. The average cost of one acre of land is $2,500. That means $50 million dollars would buy 20,000 acres. However, that purchase incurs more than $500,000 annually for maintenance, not to mention millions of dollars to be paid annually for debt relief. Government should be a steward of land, not an accumulator of land. It should also be the best steward of taxpayer dollars. These added annual expenses to manage added conservation land steer money away from other necessary programs that address priorities such as the needs of military veterans and vulnerable citizens.
Priority Four – Stop the push for electricity-driven septic and sewer systems. Most Department of Health permitted septic systems are passive, using nothing but gravity to move waste into septic tanks and drain fields. In recent years, special interest groups have promoted active systems requiring electricity. So-called “high performance systems” on the individual level and the “grinder systems” which operate on the neighborhood level or small city level are useless when the electricity goes out. During Hurricane Irma, homeowners in Everglades City suffered great devastation when their grinder systems stopped operating and raw sewage backed up into their homes and streets. If electricity-dependent systems are to be used, back-up generation must be included in their employment.
Methods to protect Florida’s environment must be able to demonstrate a positive return on investment. Only then can projects be prioritized with regard to their effectiveness and worthiness of our tax dollars. Throwing gobs of money at the problems in denominations of $50 million to $100 million does not ensure success and only misdirects resources and delays the implementation of needed solutions.