| Palm Beach Post
For the first time in nearly a decade, South Florida’s water managers are working with a budget of more than a billion dollars – a windfall officials said boosts efforts to monitor for toxic algae, fight invasive species and build critical water storage projects.
The $1.2 billion spending plan, which will be voted on by South Florida Water Management District governing board members at a Tuesday hearing, is a $236 million increase over the previous year and the largest the coffers have been since 2011.
Environmentalists and water district officials credit Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida legislature for the lift in funding, which includes $548.9 million from state sources.
“The District is finally flush and it’s good to see them have the money to move projects,” said Beth Alvi, director of policy for Audubon Florida. “They went through some really lean times and now the governor has made water and the Everglades a priority and the legislature has followed suit.”
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Because much of the District’s state funding is from documentary stamp taxes, which didn’t take as much of a hit from COVID-19 complications, board members agreed to a rolled back property tax rate of $26.75 per $100,000 for 15 of its 16 counties, including Palm Beach County. That’s down from $27.95 per $100,000 the previous year.
With incremental increases in home values, the rollback rate means property owners will pay similar amounts as the previous year to the District. It’s the 10th year the governing board has approved a rolled-back millage rate.
About 45 percent of the District’s budget comes from the state, while ad valorem taxes and a fund balance make up a combined 49 percent.
The water management district, which has about 1,475 employees, also oversees about 2,200 miles of canals, 2,100 miles of levees and 778 water control structures from Orlando to the Keys.
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It is responsible for protecting and restoring natural ecosystems from the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
“The most important thing about this budget is it allows us to accelerate projects, some of which go back 20 years,” said District governing board member Jay Steinle, who represents Palm Beach County.
More than a $519 million will be dedicated for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which is a series of restoration projects approved in 2000 that includes the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to hold lake overflow so it doesn’t get drained out of the northern estuaries.
Other CERP projects that will be addressed in the 2020-21 budget are plans to improve the amount and timing of water going into the 730-square-mile Lake Okeechobee from the north, a project to rehydrate coastal wetlands near Biscayne Bay, and work to finish building a massive reservoir to help restore the Caloosahatchee River.
“It’s not just a benefit to natural resources, but it’s really very important to our health,” Steinle said about the budget.
One element of the spending plan significantly hikes the number of water monitoring stations looking for the ingredients that grow toxic algae blooms.
Lake Okeechobee experiences algae blooms nearly every summer as warm weather, longer days and nutrient rich runoff in the lake combine. When lake water must be discharged to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries to relieve high levels, it dilutes the brackish waterways and can cause thick blue-green algae to grow in areas where people live and play.
Stuart Van Horn, water quality bureau chief for the District, said 70 new water monitoring stations will be used in Lake Okeechobee and nearby watersheds.
Six continuous monitoring sties in Lake Okeechobee will also provide water data every 15 minutes with the help of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-East satellite.
“The additional monitoring in Lake Okeechobee will give a lot more data so the scientists can better correlate what conditions are driving algal blooms,” Van Horn said. “In the past, we were collecting data on a limited number of sites.”
The District spent years in cost-cutting mode, which included losing hundreds of employees to layoffs and buyouts. In 2009, the District had 1,828 full time employees. That’s about a 20 percent reduction in employees in the past decade.
Everglades restoration projects are divided evenly by the water management district and the federal government.
Alvi, of Audubon Florida, said a healthy water management district budget pushes the federal government to pay its share.
“The longer you wait, the more expensive things get, so let’s hurry up and get it done,” Alvi said. “The governing board of the District is forward looking and is on the same page as far as what needs to happen to get the right quantity, quality and timing of water flowing to the Everglades.”