Florida voters have an eye on the environment

Florida voters have an eye on the environment #438

File photo dated Sept. 26, 2007 — Christina Panko, a water quality assistant at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, searches for marine life with three other employees at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007. The animals found on the search will be used in one of the two touch tanks at the Environmental Learning Center that is opening to the public on Saturday and will include fiddler crabs, a moon snail, spider crab, crown conch and a pear whelk that will be placed in one of the two touch tanks. The National Estuaries Day celebration event will also

File photo dated Oct. 7, 2010 –A rehabilitated Kemp’s ridley sea turtle swims into the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. Thirty-four Kemp’s ridley and three green sea turtles rescued from the Deepwater Horizion oil spill and rehabilitated at Seaworld were released into the area of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. David Albers/Staff

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Editor’s note: Second in a five-Sunday series of stories about issues in the governor’s race between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist

Conservation land is coveted to help move water south. Millions of dollars are sought by local governments and environmental groups to clean up the state’s springs and estuaries. And discussions about oil drilling often become a discussion about potential pollutants.

And as the 2014 gubernatorial race between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist heats up, the two men are fighting to distinguish themselves as the man best suited to protect Florida’s environment.

“Water is going to be an issue,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, which aims to increase environmental stewardship on Florida’s coastal ecosystem through education and research. “They better figure out water is the priority issue. Let’s get it right in Florida. We’re a coastal state. We’re a water state. And we should be on top of this.”

Environmental issues are among the top issues for Floridians, ranking among the top five major issues facing Florida, according to a recent University of South Florida survey.

Both men have rolled out plans in recent months to address the state’s water woes.

Scott’s plan includes investing millions of dollars in alternative water projects and springs restoration, protecting Apalachicola Bay in the Panhandle and the Florida Keys; and boosting funding to Florida Forever, a state program to buy land for preservation, to protect and maintain conservation lands and local parks.

Crist’s plan includes increase funding for Florida Forever to secure land to access clean drinking water; curtailing Lake Okeechobee releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, and working with the federal government to restore the Everglades.

When it comes to water issues, restoring the Everglades is often tops on candidates’ to-do list.

The Everglades restoration plan is a 50-50 split between the state and federal governments, said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting and restoring the Everglades. In order to restore the Everglades, state and federal officials need to clean the water and alter the flow into the Everglades to better mimic the way the Everglades worked before cities and farms encroached on it.

“We’ve had good years and we’ve had difficult years,” he said. “Folks want to know how long it is going to take to say we restored (the Everglades). We want to see restoration done in a timely manner.”

In order to begin the process, the state needs land to store the water, help it move south and clean it. Crist, who served as the state’s Republican governor from 2007 through 2011, took steps during his tenure to do just that, including a deal crafted in 2008 to buy significant amounts of land from the sugar industry to help move water south and curtail nutrient release into the Everglades.

In June 2008, Crist and U.S. Sugar announced a $1.7 billion plan for the state to buy 187,000 ares of the company’s land, and shut down sugar growing and processing operations over five years. But as the economy worsened, the amount of acerage the state was eyeing got smaller and smaller. In 2010 the South Florida Water Management District went ahead with a 26,800-acre land buy that cost $197.4 million.

“The plan to use the U.S. Sugar land for Everglades restoration was a dramatic and significant effort,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, a statewide citizens conservation education organization. “It was unfortunate it happened when we were having an (economic) downfall.”

Florida had an option to buy up to 153,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land at the price of $7,400 an acre, or $1.1 billion, through October 2013. The state didn’t act on that option, or a scaled down version to purchase 46,800 acres. The state has until October 2015 to purchase the 46,800 acres or until October 2020 to purchase all 153,000 acres at market price.

“I would say that Gov. Scott has started shifting (his position) and I credit that in part to him recognizing that the environment is important,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. “He ran on a platform of cutting taxes and regulations. We were worried from the beginning that the approach would end up affecting the environment.”

In 2011, Scott backed legislation to shrink the state’s water districts, which regulate surface water and oversee water use, budgets by $700 million. The cuts led to about 500 layoffs and vacant positions being slashed or frozen.

In recent years, though, there has been a shift. In 2013, Scott signed a measure to provide $32 million annually in state funding for an $880 million long-term Everglades restoration plan. And this year, Scott announced he’d push the state to spend $1 billion over the next decade on water resources.

“Last summer the water crisis – Lake Okeechobee filled up and (the Army Corps of Engineers) dumped all the polluted water east and west – it emboldened the public to say we have to stop,” said Eikenberg. “It’s a severe economic hit to local economies. It’s a process that has to be fixed.”

On a recent Tuesday, a small group of Collier residents stood outside the Collier County commission chambers protesting oil drilling in the eastern part of the county.

It’s a scene that has been repeated dozens of times in the past year, as discussions about alternative extraction methods similar to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, heat up.

For opponents, there are endless reasons why new exploration near the Everglades shouldn’t happen. Tops on the list – the long term effect on the water supply.

“It’s far too hazardous,” said Karen Dwyer, a Collier resident opposed to drilling. “It’s not safe.”

Hydraulic fracturing involved injecting water, sand and chemicals to create fractures in rock formations, which allow the release of natural gas and oil. The process has spread in recent years, with supporters saying the process could open up vast supplies of natural gas.

In Florida, the technique would likely be used in Southwest Florida and in the Panhandle, near existing oil wells. The porous nature of Florida’s land could mean chemicals seep into the water supply.

Jackie Schutz, a Scott campaign spokeswoman, said the governor “believes that any new technology that someone is going to use needs to be proven and reliable to cause no harm to our environment or Florida families.”

A spokesman for Crist said while the former governor recognizes the need to become less reliant on foreign oil, “the scientific evidence to date has not convinced Charlie that fracking is safe in Florida.”

It’s not just alternative methods which have Floridians concerned. As discussions heat up about the need to become less reliant on foreign oil, there are some concerns that Florida’s coastline could be next.

“If we ever had an oil spill and it came into the mangroves, into the Ten Thousand Islands, it would be disastrous,” said Fuller. “Don’t let anyone tell you you need to drill, baby drill.”

Both Scott and Crist say they’re against drilling off Florida’s coasts. For Scott, the position appears to be a slight reversal from where he was in his first campaign.

In the months following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the topic of drilling was on the minds of Floridians. During his first campaign, Scott refused to support a ban on drilling, saying he would support drilling it if there was a safe way to do it.

When asked recently whether he supported drilling in Florida’s waters, a spokeswoman for the campaign said Scott did not.

Crist has primarily been against drilling off Florida’s coast. During his inaugural address, he called for coastlines free of oil drilling and in a 2006 interview with the Tampa Bay Times he said he was “adamantly opposed to it.”

Yet in 2008, as gas prices sky-rocketed and Republican presidential hopefuls pushed for exploration, Crist said he would be open-minded about discussions. After the oil spill, Crist reiterated he was against drilling off Florida’s shores and called a special session to put a ban on the 2010 ballot.

He now says he would “never support near-shore drilling” for oil of the coast of Florida.

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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